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Falling-down funny and full of heart

Funny is as funny does, and Next Stage Repertory Company's production of "The Decorator" promises everything from chortles to side-splitting belly laughs.

"It's similar to Shakespeare's comedies in that it involves deception and characters pretending to be someone else," director Doug Warner says. "It's the classic boy-girl approach but filled with very funny, physical humor."

"The Decorator" runs at 7:30 p.m. three nights only — Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 5-7 — in the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford.

A big fan of slapstick, Warner studied the genius of such comics as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Red Skelton and Milton Berle when he was a kid.

"I looked at what made people laugh when something painful happened to a dramatic character," Warner says. "If you break down a slapstick bit, you'll find the setup, then a slap or a fall — or something unexpected — and then the actor's reaction. The audience doesn't really laugh until that instant. It's the actor's reaction to the unexpected that is funny.

"Years ago, Dick Van Dyke did a bit on his show that was about how comedy had become more sophisticated, less low-humor." Warner says. "During the bit, he slams his hand in a desk drawer, stabs himself with a letter opener, tries to lean on the desk but slips and hits his head and hops and prances around the room after getting his foot stuck in a waste can.

"In reality, there would be tears and concern of injury," Warner says. "But in comedy, the actor gets to make a funny face and jump around, and there are big laughs."

Go to YouTube and search "Slapstick by Dick Van Dyke."

"The great Broadway comedians said comedy is serious business," Warner says. "They also were great actors. That's what brings depth to their art."

Warner first heard of playwright Donald Churchill's "The Decorator" from a friend who'd seen the play in England.

"Her name is Kathleen Powers, and she's a professional actor in New York City," Warner says. "She told me the play was falling-down funny."

The three-person comedy involves Marcia, who is in a bind because the wife of her lover has shown up to reveal the affair to Marcia's husband. In a panic, Marcia colludes with her house painter to impersonate him. Hilarity ensues when the wronged wife decides the best revenge is to sleep with Marcia's husband.

Warner, his wife, Arlene, and another actor did the play about 12 years ago at the Mendocino Theatre Company in Northern California.

"We had a blast with it," Warner says.

Arlene and Doug Warner play Marcia Hornbeam and the would-be actor Walter Page — the same roles they played in the Mendocino production — and Presila Quinby plays the imposed-upon Jane Erskine.

"In playing the role," Warner says, "I've approached it with what the great comedians would do with the situation. Most actors need a good vehicle to be funny. Comedy comes from given circumstance, and most actors push the circumstance as far as they can. The story creates the humor, not the goofy look on the actor's face.

"In directing the play, I've looked at the drama first, then to see if the actors can bring the drama to the table," Warner says.

Churchill penned at least four other plays in his lifetime, including "Fringe Benefits," co-written with Peter Yeldham. All are published by Samuel French.

"Churchill sets up the classic approach," Warner says. "The play gets funnier and funnier because it is so well-written. When a story has a plausible foundation, it becomes connected and has heart. Then the comedy is honest, not hammy.

"After all, how many times can you watch The Three Stooges and ever say you really know them?"

All tickets to "The Decorator" cost $10. Tickets can be purchased at the Craterian box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., Medford, and www.craterian.org or by calling 541-779-3000.

Front to back: Walter Page (Doug Warner), Jane Erskine (Presila Quinby) and Marcia Hornbeam (Arlene Warner) find themselves in hilarious circumstances in Next Stage Repertory Company's 'The Decorator.' - Photo by Jamie Lusch