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Vivacious Vicars

The energy and cast of this British farce carry the play to hysterical success

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The sole measure of a farce's success: Its production is so fast and exuberant that you never have a chance to nitpick over little things that don't make sense. Of course some things won't make sense; just shut up and hang on, and let the cast spin you around.

That's exactly what happens in Live Theatre Workshop's production of Philip King's See How They Run, a British farce that's been unashamedly escapist since its first performance in 1944. You'd barely know that this show opened when Britain was in the middle of a war in which its major cites were being blitzed, even though the script includes some wartime references. One of the main characters, Penelope, a vicar's wife, is a former USO entertainer, as is the Army corporal who spirits her off for an evening of fun, and there's an escaped enemy alien on the loose.

Somehow, in the course of the proceedings, the vicar himself, the Rev. Lionel Toop, finds himself stripped down to his underwear while the corporal and the intruder cavort in his clothes, to the befuddlement of a visiting bishop and yet another vicar. Many supposed men of the cloth wind up chasing one another in circles. Call it ring around the collar.

Complicating things further is a village busybody spinster, who through no fault of her own has become rubber-legged drunk; when she's not being hung up to dry out in a closet, she's collapsing into a compromising position with one capering clergyman or another. There's also a maid who has precisely the wrong idea about everything, and a nonplused officer of the law who can do little more than heed the advice of another character: "Arrest most of these vicars!" (That is reportedly playwright Tom Stoppard's favorite line in the history of theater.)

See How They Run is as British as a farce can be. First, despite a bit of sexual tension and some salacious double entendres--the bicycling spinster complains of having trouble with her inner tube--there's absolutely no danger of sexual intercourse occurring within a mile of any of these characters. Second, only in Britain is a clergyman respected as an authority figure while also regarded as inherently silly. (Remember the Monty Python sketch in which a crime-fighting cockney bishop races around England to the theme from Peter Gunn, always a moment too late to save some vicar from a grisly murder?) And so, if one vicar is funny, four vicars and a bishop must be milk-through-the-nose hilarious, right? Well, perhaps not for Americans, who prefer to laugh at nuns and televangelists, but there's always something appealing about compromised dignity.

Anyway, the Live Theatre Workshop cast, directed by Stephen Frankenfield, is quick and eager, so one is disinclined to fuss over a few incongruities. For example, what American corporal would be named Clive Winton? Why is the escaped prisoner a Russian spy rather than a German prisoner of war? Remember, in World War II, the Russians were our allies. And by the way, during the extended chase through the vicarage, why is the escapee the one who brings up the rear? Oh, and how is it that so many tall, trim men can more or less fit into clothing that belongs to a character played by short, pudgy Cliff Madison?

Well, never mind. The cast's enthusiasm and Frankenfield's sure pacing are what really matter. Jodi Rankin, who is very good at playing British eccentrics, steals more than her share of scenes as the inebriated prig. Debbie Runge, as the vicar's wife, is full of childlike energy and assertiveness. Christian Armstrong is appealing as the gregarious, not-quite-fearless corporal, although he overplays his anguish over his missing uniform; in a play like this, you don't have to push the comedy, because the momentum will pull it along. The other actors surrender to the centrifugal force with great success: Madison as the denuded vicar, Megan Patno as the oversexed (by English standards) maid, Eric Anson as the escapee, Steve McKee and Tony Eckstat as late-coming clergymen, and Chad Ramsey as the policeman. This is true ensemble playing, and it's difficult to draw a line between leading roles and supporting characters.

The set is rather bare, but props and wall hangings would probably be sent flying by all the slamming and leaping. Be assured that the set's four doors are put to use most energetically.

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