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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Noises Off
Artistry
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's review of The Wiz and Arty's reviews of Dead Man Walking, Cardboard Piano, and Frederick Douglass Now


Caitlin Burns, Fred Mackaman, Ernest Briggs, and
Angela Timberman

Photo by Devon Cox
Noises Off is one of the funniest plays I have ever seen, and it surely ranks among the funniest plays written in the past half century. It combines slapstick, word-play, character-driven humor, and an especially large dose of affectionately lampooning the theater itself. People can always use an evening of hearty laughter, which is probably one reason Noises Off pops up so frequently on various stages. It was first produced in London in 1982 with a successful Broadway run opening December, 1983, and ever since has been a staple of regional and community theaters, as well as two Broadway revivals and a production at the National Theatre of Great Britain. It is back generating gales of laughter in Minnesota, thanks to Artistry, making it the first non-musical to be mounted in their Schneider Theater at Bloomington Center for the Arts.

Playwright Michael Frayn was inspired to write Noises Off after observing that one of his earlier plays seemed funnier when he viewed it from backstage than from the front of the house. He conceived a play within a play performed by a slipshod company touring the provinces in Great Britain. In the first act, we watch the cast go through the technical rehearsal of act one of their vehicle, a loopy bedroom farce called Nothing On—an apt title in the sense that it has nothing on its mind. It is composed of tired jokes and dim characters, the type of show that, in another era, pleased audiences titillated by double entendres and glimpses of actors in their underwear. The humor stems mostly from the frequent interruptions by missed cues, actors seeking character motivation from their director, and the various dalliances among cast and crew.

Act two of Noises Off takes place a month into the tour. We see the same first act of Nothing On, but this time from backstage, watching the mayhem caused by quick entrances and exits, misplaced props, keeping a bottle of whisky away from an inebriate actor, mixed up deliveries, and increasing grievances among one and all. Act three of Noises Off brings us to the final week of the tour and another go at the first act of Nothing On. By now the audience know that play—at least its first act—quite well, but what we see bears little resemblance to its script as the actors' shifting alliances and weariness with the entire project make a shambles of the play—to hilarious effect. Since Nothing On calls for an ungainly number of doors opening and shutting with split-second timing, the missed cues and bungled lines, plotted with precision in Frayn's script, whip the pandemonium on stage into a sublime comic froth.

Noises Off is populated by the six actors appearing in Nothing On, their director, stage manager, and assistant stage manager. The director, Lloyd Dallas, has loftier aims—he is eager to wrap things up to get on with his next project, Richard III—and his well of patience for the actors is near empty. He is also juggling affairs between the blonde bimbo in the cast, Brooke Ashton (the one who ends up parading around in her underwear), and the barely-put-together assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor. The stage manager, hapless Tim Allgood, tries to live up to his surname, but is forever bungling his tasks.

Appearing in Nothing On are Dotty Otley as the housekeeper, meant to be a popular television star who, it is hoped, will draw audiences to the show. Dotty conveys the sense that she is slumming appearing in this frivolous piece, but hopes to cash in, as she is also an investor. Paired with the Brooke is the actor Garry Lejeune, who is incapable of ever completing a thought, ending most of his sentences with a vague "you know." The couple who own the country home where Nothing On takes place are played by Frederick Fellowes—a rather dim man whose wife has just left him—and Belinda Blair, the most reliable of the group, but also an inveterate gossip. Finally, the inebriate, playing a burglar, is Selsdon Mowbray, a veteran actor whose love for the bottle has cost him his career, being given one last chance.

To orchestrate all of this requires careful attention to the timing of every line and every movement, so the glorious debacle written into Frayn's script appears unintentional. Ben McGovern has exercised a firm directorial hand to keep the spiraling tempest of mayhem under control without losing its comic genius. He is abetted by a terrific staff, who handle the fast dialogue and breakneck physical comedy with aplomb. Cast in what are the nominal lead roles are Angela Timberman playing Dotty with deadpan humor and Riley McNutt who imbues director Lloyd Dallas with restless energy, while showing him to be arrogant, sarcastic, and an inconsiderate swain.

The rest of the cast completely hold their own. Ernest Briggs makes Frederick Fellowes so earnest, we are willing to tolerate his dull mind. Caitlin Burns as Belinda Blaire convinces as a pillar of civility until she is finally pushed to the edge. Paul Rutledge as Garry Lejeune depicts the actor's nervous edge and intense manner, and Emily-Sue Bengtson winningly plays Brooke Ashton, hanging on for dear life to the lines, even as everything on stage is going to hell. Fred Mackaman is a charming lush as Selsdon, Jamie Case brings out the fraying nerves of the animate Poppy, and Neal Skoy shows the boyish ineptness of stage manager Tim Allgood.

Rich Polonek has designed a splendid set that shows the historic country home setting of Nothing On on one side, and revolves to show the bare boards and artifice of backstage on the other. There is no intermission between acts two and three. Instead, we watch while the stage crew revolves the set piece back so the country home, now totally revealed to be a fraud, faces us again. The effect is delightful, and drew audience applause. Grant E. Mergers' lighting allows us to view the stage lighting for Nothing On from backstage, a well-conceived effect. Ed Gleeman's costume designs aptly dress the cast members for their roles in Nothing On. Among the props designed by Katie Phillips are an unending number of sardines, which provide for a running joke both within Nothing On and the broader farce we are watching, Noises Off.

What about the name, Noises Off? Frayn took it from the theatrical stage direction indicating that sounds are coming from offstage. Indeed, the sounds, mostly the sounds of human foolishness, from offstage are much more the point of the play than from what the actors say on stage. To the degree that it lampoons the conduct of actors, directors, and stage managers, as well as the conventions of rehearsals and performances, Noises Off may be somewhat more greatly appreciated by those with some prior awareness of those things. But it does not take professional—or even amateur—involvement in theater to thoroughly enjoy Noises . All it takes is a good sense of humor, a good ear to keep up with the rapid-paced dialogue, and a willingness to forgo serious things for a couple of hours of sheer fun.

Noises Off, through February 18, 2018, in the Schneider Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: Adults: $41.00; Age 62 and up: $36.00; Next Generation (age 30 and under): $12.00. $3.00 discount for adult and senior at Wednesday and Thursday performances. For tickets call 952-563-8375 or go to artistrymn.org.

Playwright: Michael Frayn; Director: Michael Matthew Ferrell; Set Design: Rich Polonek; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Associate Lighting Designer: Erin Belpedio; Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Production Manager/Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; Stage Manager: Lee Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Joel Bronson.

Cast: Emily Sue Bengtson (Brooke Ashton), Ernest Briggs (Frederick Fellowes), Caitlin Burns (Belinda Blair), Jamie Case (Poppy Norton-Taylor), Fred Mackaman (Selsdon Mowbray), Riley McNutt (Lloyd Dallas), Paul Rutledge (Garry Lejeune), Neal Skoy (Tim Allgood), Angela Timberman (Dotty Otley).


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