Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of NOISES OFF at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT)
Through June 25th
The wonder of live theatre is enchanting, captivating, even magical; it can take you on an adventure into places and times unknown where you’ll suspend imagination and live vicariously through the world of others for a few precious hours. Theatre is incredible isn’t it?
But I also ask you, have you ever considered how the phenomenal artistry you see comes to grace the stage? The blood, sweat, and tears that go into it? The symbiosis, the synergy in the caring relationships, the generosity, and the collaborative efforts of the actors, directors, stage managers, and the rest of the creatives? Consider no more, because everything you’ll ever wish to know about making great theatre can be seen in Michael Frayn’s brilliant Noises Off.
Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) has done it again. Big time. They have magnificently staged this robust, outrageous farce with such verve and vigor, it will literally have you falling out of your seat. Bring your ibuprofen (for the sidesplitting laughs) and a packet of tissues for the tears that will be streaming down your face. While some may believe that a farce is a farce is a farce, I can tell you that not every farce is a GREAT farce. And most certainly not everyone can pull off such buffoonery and improbability to true humorous effect. But this spectacular cast of nine, under the masterful direction of Vincent J. Cardinal, did just that and more.
Noises Off uses the device of mise en abyme, or a play within a play (in actuality a farce within a farce). For these colorful characters, it is uncertain at best that the fictitious Nothing On by Robin Housemonger is actually going to go on. Flighty Dotty can’t seem to get her lines or her sardines straight; theatre vet Selsdon is always MIA and intoxicated; nearly blind Brooke has a case of projectile contact lenses; and Freddie’s nose needs a good cauterizing. On top of it, Lloyd can’t keep it in his pants and he’s losing patience with his cast (maybe he should have spent more time directing on stage than in the bedroom). Histrionics and love triangles abound – and before long it’s all going to come to fisticuffs.
Told in three acts, we as the audience first are watching the midnight tech rehearsal (or is it a dress rehearsal?) at Grand Theatre in Weston-super-Mare. It’s impossible and highly improbable that the next day they’ll have their world premiere without incident. In Act 2, a mere month later, we get a bird’s eye view from backstage of their matinee performance at the Theatre Royal in Ashton-under-lyne. A lot has happened in the four weeks of the production and everyone’s ragged. And finally in Act 3, we see the supreme escalation of the cast and crew’s dysfunction as it has wreaked widespread havoc on the production about ten weeks into the run, now at the Municipal Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees.
To call this fine CRT troupe a well-oiled machine wouldn’t do them justice. In fact, they were truly among the best ensemble of actors I’ve ever seen and as UCONN’s CRT combines the talents of Equity actors with its theatre students, you’d be hard-pressed to tell who’s whom (that is, unless you’ve seen many of these fine artists before, which we have). The spot-on delivery of lines, and the intentional bumbling and fumbling as per Frayn’s divine book, could only be presented by a group so polar opposite to those characters they portray in Nothing On. Each and every actor brought their A-PLUS game – able to act but also demonstrate incredible physical theatrical performances reminiscent of Commedia dell’arte. The rapid-fire dialogue and physical movements are both mesmerizing and dizzying at the same time.
“Behind the Dressing Room Doors” as the Nothing On cast is heralded, is Dotty Otley/Mrs. Clackett – played by an utterly divine and diminutive Jennifer Cody. She had me crossing my legs to keep from darting to the ladies’ room throughout the entire show. It took only one look at her exasperated face to break me into hysterics. If one more sardine went errant I’d have totally lost it. John Bixler as Lloyd Dallas was priceless as the sometimes tyrannical, always lecherous lothario director. Every time he stomped by me in the aisle to approach the “actors” during rehearsal, my heart jumped as if I were the one being called out. Curtis Longfellow as Garry Lejeune/Roger Tramplemain was fabulous as the short-tempered, long-haired American actor and jealous lover – and his physicality on stage was astonishing. Jayne Ng as Brooke Ashton/Vicki is incredible as the weak actress (in truth she’s a wonderful one!) who can’t keep her contacts in or her clothes on. She milks the audience for every last laugh as she delivers her lines as if reading them (poorly) off of note cards with an overly exaggerated tone and wild gesturing.
Gavin McNicholl as Frederick (Freddie) Fellowes/Philip Brent is knock-down-drag-out hysterical. A hemophobic among other things, he’s a method actor who’s just got to know the character’s every motivation and drives his director a bit nuts in the process. Another great physical actor, McNicholl manages to steal scenes shuffling around with his pants around his ankles, and I wondered the entire time how he didn’t kill himself in the process. Arlene Bozich as Belinda Blair/Flavia Brent is the straight woman of the troupe. She’s something of a contradiction, managing to play peacemaker and gossip both at the same time with no one the wiser. She’s in a word, fabulous.
Ever the cut-up, Steve Hayes as Selson Mowbray/Burglar brought it all to the table as the inept, inebriated, inveterate Englishman who’s always out of sight and never out of booze (he’s also always missing his cues). Grace Allyn as Poppy Norton-Taylor is pure delight as the put-upon Assistant Stage Manager who’s at everyone’s beck and call, running around like a chicken with her head cut off. It’s her job to keep everything together while she herself is trying to keep from falling apart. And last but certainly not least is Michael Doherty as Tim Allgood – Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God! (if you missed him in CRT’s Peter and the Starcatcher you missed brilliance). Michael is the insomniac Company and Stage Manager (= mule) and the understudy for everyone whose jobs range from door-fixer (because what’s a farce without countless doors?) and flower buyer to sheikh and burglar.
There were countless moments during Noises Off in which I truly couldn’t imagine how Vincent J. Cardinal and his cast pulled this off. While it there is not a dance to be seen, there was a tight choreography to the physical slapstick that blew doors (pun intended) on even the best musical dance sequences. Suffice it to say, you’ll be picking your slack jaw up from the theatre floor. Nearly a character itself, is the perfection of the set design by Tim Brown which again, you’ll have to see to believe – it rivals that of any Broadway set. Kudos to Christina Bullard as Costume Designer; Michael Chybowski for Lighting Design; Michael Vincent Skinner for Sound Design. I’ll also say I have a new appreciation for stage managers after this – so a big shout out to Victoria Whooper; and hands also to John W. Parmalee for Technical Direction, Pat McCorkle, McCorkle Casting, Ltd., and Terrence Mann for some truly hysterical and unbelievably orchestrated Fight Choreography.
Bottom line – see it! And: Wear Depends (I admittedly just read that somewhere, but as my husband likes to say, “Amateurs borrow, professionals steal”). Bring tissues. Take some pain relievers (for those ribs) before you even walk into the theatre – that is, run into the theatre, before Noises Off is off the stage at CRT.
Comedy is unusual people in real situations; farce is real people in unusual situations. — Chuck Jones
If I said it once in a review, I’ve said it countless times. Farce, as a theatrical genre, is a fantastic comedy vehicle when it is done well. Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s (CRT) Noises Off is not done well; it is done with fantastic aplomb, a stellar cast, and precise comedic timing. In a word, it is HILARIOUS! I’m far from a belly laugher. In fact, I rarely laugh out loud at plays – The Book of Mormon being a recent exception. But I was laughing so hard at CRT’s Noises Off that I thought I was going to have to stop at the ER on my way home because of a couple of cracked ribs.
I was familiar with the hype of Noises Off when it opened on Broadway in the early eighties. At the time, however, I was still in my existentialist, heavy drama phase. I considered farce to be low-brow comedy, opting instead for dramas like Death of a Salesman, Equus, and Long Day’s Journey into Night. I’ve come a long way since then in my culture-vulture diet and the well-done farce has become for me an entrée that I look forward to devouring.
Despite the fact that the play has become a darling staple of both the community and professional theatre circuits, it is by far not an easy one to stage. The fact that it’s a complex farce that utilizes a play within a play set up is, in and of itself, a difficult nut to crack. Add to that the fact that the action is equally split behind the set and in front of it is a scenic designer’s and stage manager’s worst nightmare (especially with all of the functional doors that the set requires). Finally, you need a troupe of physical actors that can do slapstick, pratfalls, and have a great sense of comedic timing. None of these elements are easy to pull off independently; trying to successfully pull them off in one production is a Herculean task.
CRT’s production makes it look easy-peasy. Indeed, it was a riotous, brilliantly staged piece of theatre. The cast was incredible and the comedic pacing impeccable. Vincent Cardinal, who directed Michael Frayn’s 1982 play, did a superb job. It takes a special creative visionary to pull all of the moving parts of a play like Noises Off together into a unified whole that works and Mr. Cardinal is just the director who can do it. He has an intuitive and instinctual knack when it comes to comedy and to know what works and what doesn’t with today’s audiences. As is the case with all great directors, he has a special talent for extracting the best possible performances from his cast of actors.
And what a great cast it is! An ensemble in the truest sense of the word, with each actor working in complete comedic sync as a unit, yet having his or her own stand-out individual quirks and strengths, whether it is a Chaplain-esque fight with a mop and bucket, a Three-Stooges pie-in-the-face act (using sardines instead of pies), or Abbott and Costello-type pratfalls. The play-within-a-play structure adds about 100 points to the level of acting difficulty in any given situation inasmuch as the members of the cast must make believable their characters in the play as well as their alter-egos in the play within the play.
CRT’s cast makes this Escher-like acting conundrum look like finger painting. Jennifer Cody is simply fantastic as Dotty Otley (Mrs. Clackett). She is a pixie that carries with her a deadly comedic knock-out punch. Her facial expressions and body language alone elicited belly laughs from the audience. In a hysterical height match up reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dany DeVito in Twins, her love interest is the tall and heavily-maned Curtis Longfellow as Garry Lejeune (Roger Tramplemain). Mr. Lejeune has a commanding presence on stage, but he also is a very physical actor who knows how to take a realistic fall down a flight of steps. His acting agility reminded me of a young Dick Van Dyke in the film versions of Bye Bye Birdie and Mary Poppins. Michael Dougherty (oh, my God, did Pillow Talking love him as Black Stache in CRT’s Peter and the Starcatcher) gave another flawless performance as the harried Tim Allgood. He definitely channeled a Don Knotts character as his entire body shook when something would go awry on stage. CRT frequenters, Steve Hayes and John Bixler gave their usual sterling performances as, respectively, Selsdon Mowbray and Lloyd Dallas. Jayne Ng was spot-on as the stunningly vacuous Brooke Ashton. Gavin McNicholl (who Pillow talking enjoyed in CRT’s Spamalot and Waiting for Lefty) was hilarious as the nose bleeding, pants dropping, ultimate method actor Frederick Fellowes. Rounding out this marvelous cast were Arlene Bozich (Belinda Blair) and Grace Allyn (Poppy Norton-Taylor) two of the more sensible characters in the play, but no less charmingly amusing.
Technically, the term Noises Off means sounds off-stage that are heard by the audience. The backstage antics that were, for the most part, done in pantomime, were literally knoc-down-drag-out wonderful. There was some nice ax wielding as well (courtesy of Fight Choreographer Terrence Mann). And speaking of backstage, kudos must be given to Scenic Designer Tim Brown for that incredible movable stage.
I am aware of the fact that the play was adapted into a 1992 film directed by Peter Bogdanovich. While I hate to comment on something I have not seen, I cannot understand how such a transition could be successfully made without changing the plot and/or story. I tend to agree with Vincent Canby who wrote in his New York Times review of the film, “Noises Off is a practically perfect stage piece, constructed with such delicacy that any opportunistic adjustment can destroy it…
CRT’s Noises Off will keep you smiling for days. My ribs, although not cracked, are still sore from laughing so hard.