Five years after they first appeared in a drag parody of A Christmas Carol, Bag & Baggage have revived their fake community theater company to stage a madcap murder mystery, Murder at Checkmate Manor. A convoluted whodunit set inside an English country estate, Checkmate Manor is an awful play. Fortunately for Bag & Baggage's farcical humor, the Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society are even worse at presenting it.
Bag & Baggage's production, whose full title is Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production of Murder at Checkmate Manor, recreates the opening night of an amateur murder mystery production plagued by misfortune. As explained at the outset by Farndale Avenue grande dame Phoebe Reese (Patrick Spike), the leading ladies Thelma Greenwood (Norman Wilson) and Mercedes Blower (Jeremy Sloan) despise one another, the costume designer has sewn her fingers into claws and the pill-addled lighting tech lets the spotlight run free.
Farndale Avenue pokes fun at the egos and errors of community theater. It's a familiar premise, but the old jokes still hit. Inventive staging and fast pace dissolve any hint of the insular theatricality that usually infects plays about plays.
The fusillade of verbal hijinks only heightens the effectiveness of some truly inspired moments once the momentum slows. Under the warmhearted direction of Bag & Baggage's artistic director Scott Palmer, the amateur thespians are allowed notes of humanity that ultimately forgive their worst pretensions. When Farndale Avenue's stage manager playing a policeman (Arianne Jacques) grills a witness played by Mercedes, he accidently repeats the scene's opening line mid-scene. That launches a dialogue loop that spins from slow-building frustrations toward the tragic helplessness that fuels grand comedy.
Men cast as exaggerated parodies of women is a farcical setup that runs from music halls to Monty Python. But Farndale Avenue adds something more resonant by explicitly acknowledging the more complicated themes of layered identity introduced by drag culture. Dying, as they say, is easy. Slapstick in stilettos is hard.
SEE IT: Farndale Avenue . . . Murder at Checkmate Manor is at the Vault Theatre, 350 E. Main St., Hillsboro, bagnbaggage.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through Oct. 31. $30.