A scene from Restless Artists' Theatre's Artifice.

It’s been repeated so often that it’s taken as fact: An artist is only appreciated after he’s dead.

Vincent Van Gogh is one famous example; Monet, Vermeer and Gauguin count as well. But imagine, if you will, the ensuing chaos if Mr. Van Gogh were to stroll through the door after a couple of months and call out, “Hey, I’m back! Anybody miss me?”

Of course, it’s a safe bet the quality of Van Gogh’s work could withstand such scandal—but a lesser artist might not be so lucky. That’s the territory in which playwright Anne Flanagan’s farcical work Artifice dwells.

The play, which runs at Sparks’ Restless Artists’ Theatre through Monday, Oct. 3, is about what managing artistic director Doug Mishler calls “silly people doing silly things.” Based on the pre-opening sneak preview I caught, I can confidently say that this is an understatement!

The story opens as widow Maggie La Rue (played by Robin Soli) and her gallery manager, Richard (Jonathan Gastelo), are knee-deep in party preparations. Maggie’s artist husband, Payne Showers, tragically died a little over a month ago in an avalanche, and now she must sell all of his work to avoid bankruptcy. She and Richard have cooked up a private showing for millionaire Irish real estate mogul Mick Fitzgerald (James Winkler)—who also happens to be a dangerous mob boss. Thanks to Payne’s death, his art may actually fetch a pretty penny from Fitzgerald if the self-important art critic he’s hired (Libby Schipper) to advise him gives the go-ahead.

Newspaper publisher Judith Fontaine (Kathy Welch) will be in attendance to cover the proceedings in the press. Providing support are Maggie’s new, young, self-centered boyfriend, soap-opera actor Trevor (Zoogie Austin); and Graciela (Tonantzin Nordwall), a wisecracking maid/server hired to pour drinks for the evening’s affair.

The reception has begun smoothly, but just as the guests head upstairs to view the work, one final surprise guest shows up: Payne Showers himself (played by Bob Ives). This is where things really get ridiculous. Maggie and Richard, panicked about the mobster upstairs catching wind of a fraud—even one they never meant to happen—cook up a secret identity for Payne and a backstory for his appearance. Lie upon lie piles up, and just when the tension couldn’t ratchet any higher, they all become snowbound, forcing a series of outrageous secret maneuvers in the dark.

Kudos to RAT for assembling a diverse, inclusive cast with a healthy mix of theater veterans and fresh-faced newbies. Farce can be remarkably challenging, with its fast pace and rapid-fire comedic delivery, not to mention the physicality involved in much of the comedy, but RAT doesn’t shy away from such challenges.

Will Maggie and Richard sell enough art to get themselves out of debt, or will the mobster kill them first? Will Payne’s work be worth anything now that he’s alive? And will Maggie send Payne back out into the snow, or kick boy-toy Trevor to the curb? You’ll just have to take this wild ride to find out.

Artifice will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday; and 6:30 p.m., Monday, through Monday, Oct. 3, at Restless Artists’ Theatre, 295 20th St., in Sparks. Tickets are $15, with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 775-525-3074, or visit rattheatre.org.

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