A farce like Bottoms Up! might be light entertainment, but it places heavy demands on comedic timing

click to enlarge Highly choreographed farce is on tap at Ignite! Community Theatre.
Highly choreographed farce is on tap at Ignite! Community Theatre.

It was 2010 when Nanette Guerry heard a radio ad soliciting volunteers for Riverfront Fright, a spooky haunted-house-style attraction that appeared each Halloween in downtown Spokane's Riverfront Park.

"It sounded like so much fun that I volunteered," she says. "And then I just got hooked."

Up to the time it closed in 2012, when that area of the park was deemed unsuitable, Riverfront Fright was organized and staffed by Ignite! Community Theatre. The event served as the cornerstone to the Spokane Valley-based theater group's annual fundraising efforts.

After the haunted house was shuttered, Guerry transitioned to volunteering for Ignite!'s core programming, helping with props, set design and other backstage work on productions like The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and As Bees in Honey Drown. She soon moved into other areas of responsibility, such as stage management, which is a vital but often unsung component in any theatrical performance because it bridges the interaction between cast and crew.

"I enjoy Ignite! because it lets me be creative," she says. "I love the set work and handling the props, and when I learned about stage management, I was more than happy to jump in there and just learn. It's been very rewarding for me to be able to corral the actors and get everything going in a way that the director likes and the shows are a hit."

With several years of stage-management experience now under her belt, Guerry finds herself in that position once again for the theater's production of Bottoms Up!, a 1989 farce by Gregg Kreutz. She's working alongside director Jerry Uppinghouse, with whom she was last paired on another farce, Mark Twain's Is He Dead?, exactly one year ago.

"Jerry's a very hands-on director. He'll come in and help us build the set on the weekends, so we have a lot of communication going on between us. He'll bring up and idea and I'll bring up an idea and we'll bounce it off each other. It's a very good relationship," Guerry says.

Although farces like Is He Dead? and Bottoms Up! might fall under the category of light entertainment, the logistical feats that are required to do them well places heavy demands on everyone involved.

"There are slamming doors, people hiding, running. It's quite active, very fast-paced. On this [set], we have a lobby, an elevator up to the second floor, and then we have a couple of rooms on the second floor and a hallway. And then within one of the rooms is a bathroom. So you've got three doors people are coming in and out of, and then the bell has to ding when the elevator door opens and closes."

That kind of timing involves a lot of moving parts while leaving little room for error. In the run-down Caribbean hotel where Bottoms Up! is set, phones have to ring at the right time, the elevator has to ding on cue and characters need to enter precisely when others exit, else the comedy might fizzle. Much of that coordination falls on Guerry's shoulders as stage manager, given that she's responsible for recording the actors' movements and position at every point in the show, a process known as blocking.

"Every time someone opens or closes a door, I've written down who it is. You don't want to forget anything, because then you feel like you've let everybody down," she says.

In this show, Guerry is supervising a cast of nine. There's June (played by Tricia Petrinovich), an aerobics instructor whose suitcase gets swapped with an identical cash-filled one that belongs to Scopec (Scott Finlayson), a ruthless mobster who's abetted by the greedy but unlucky Smith (Steve Petrinovich). Lauralynn Stafford appears as Señora Valdez, owner of the Hotel Grande; Joe Smeader plays the porter. Troy Heppner is playing Rushmore, a sleazy filmmaker, and Anthony Cossette is Keith, his nonchalant assistant.

Adding to the color and commotion are Victoria (Phedre Burney-Peters), Rushmore's malcontent former star, and Pumphrey (Michael Hynes), a neurotic chemistry professor who's not staying at the Hotel Grande by choice. Like a shell game, part of the appeal for the audience lies in identifying who among this motley crew has the all-important suitcase.

Keeping the madcap interactions between these characters swift but comprehensible might be no easy task, but Guerry admits that she gets a thrill from channeling the chaos.

"Just trying to remember where everybody is at any given time, that's what makes it so fun. I just kind of feed off of it," she says. And though she's speaking as the stage manager, a show like Bottoms Up! will have succeeded if the audience says the same. ♦

Bottoms Up! • June 7-23; Fri-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sun at 2 pm • $15 • Ignite! Community Theatre • 10814 E. Broadway Ave., Spokane Valley • igniteonbroadway.org • 795-0004

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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.