Noises Off by Michael Frayn. Directed by Jenn Thompson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
The Company in the Third Act Finale; photo: provided
"I don’t know. . .you know?"
Garry Lejeune is a non-communicative soul. Despite all his best efforts only his nearest and dearest can ever make sense of his foot-in-mouth disease sort of utterances. Like it or not, Garry, you make us laugh. Currently Garry is currently playing the role of Roger Tramplemain in Robin Housemonger’s "Nothing On," a farce comedy touring the outer stratosphere of British theatrical towns, such as Weston-Super-Mare and Stockton-on-Tees.
His current squeeze, the older character/star Dottie Ottley, is both producing and starring in the show opposite him in the classic farce role of the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett, a woman obsessed with putting her feet up with a plate of sardines. Her old friend Selsdon Mowbray is playing Burglar and her dear friend Frederick Fellowes has agreed to play Philip Brent, a tax-dodging playwright technically hiding out in Spain with his wife Flavia, played by Belinda Blair.
These are a few of the facts surrounding the play in production in the play now playing at the Dorset Theatre Festival, "Noises Off." Everything above is true, but nothing above is real. Comedy. Get it?
When you see this production - and you must see this production - be certain you read the second program insert, the one for the show’s show. It will have you splitting your sides wide open with laughter. Then prepare to have your funny bone tickled with a long, hard feather. This production is just as much fun as the original with Dorothy Loudon, Brian Bedford, Victor Garber and Paxton Whitehead as Dottie, Lloyd, Garry and Frederick which opened on Broadway in December 1983 and ran for 553 hilarious performances.
Director Jenn Thompson has assembled a cast of players whose work is stellar and whose characters take them, the actors, into another plain, a high plain, a grand plane of illusion and deception and confusion and misperception. It doesn’t matter how high they each attempt to fly, they are grounded in farce and they stay there no matter how lofty their goals.
On a deliciously fun set with nine doors the nine actors in this play often seem to be using all of those entrances and exits simultaneously and in such a fun way that the laughs come easily and are generally loud. The set was designed by Debra Booth and she and costume designer Emily Pepper have created the trappings of true comedy. They’ve done it to suit Jenn Thompson who, in a couple of intense weeks, has rehearsed one of the most difficult plays in the English language to a fare-thee-well. What makes it difficult is the script of the play within the play is identical for three straight acts and yet is never the same twice. The "actors" need to be able to play the original script but it too is altered constantly as these British professionals struggle to get their own lines and movements right, but they can’t do it.
Amelia White is fabulous as Dotty, the star/producer. Funny in her role as star, she is equally as funny playing her own role in this play that is being rehearsed, a role known as Mrs. Clackett. She starts out endearingly humorous, but by the end of the production she has graduated into an attitude seen but never heard: just how lucky are we to have you? Matthew Schneck is just hilarious as the philanderer Garry LeJeune. His granite-hard good looks work perfectly for his role. He has the acting stripes as well, carrying props that would cripple a better man and managing a damaging shoelace incident with floppy grace. He is also just plain funny.
Stephen Kunken plays the distressed and overwrought director Lloyd Dallas as a more mature man with a young man’s hunger. He is gentle in the first act, subversive in the second and unexpected in the third. He handles himself well in the physical situations and has mastered the fine class of the art of comedy.
Kate Middleton plays Brooke, a vague and disconnected actress who is so self-absorbed that she has the appearance of being fully absorbed and needing a major squeeze, like tube of toothpaste, to be restored. She also looked perfectly cut off from reality throughout the show.
Nilanjana Bose is Poppy, the stage manager whose job it is to keep these people in line and she performs her duties and her role with amazing self-control. She is marvelous in this part.
Her cohort in backstage crime is Tim Allgood, as played by Jake Green. Green gets his part just right, understanding all of Tim’s flaws and he places them in an order we can discuss but never emulate as he rushes from one disaster to another.
Oliver Wadsworth plays Frederick with relish and Valerie Wight is the perfect Belinda. Evan Thompson as the alcoholic old codger named Selsdon is merely marvelous. As a company it is hard to imagine a group working better together to create a seamless theatrical garment.
The production values here are first-rate also. Debra Booth’s set is a marvel. Emily Pepper has provided ideal costumes and Philip Rosenberg has delivered well in the lighting of this show. Thompson has been clearly supported by her design team as well as by her actors.
The true use of an audience's imagination is hearing things on stage that cannot be seen, the sources of those ‘noises off.’ In this production no laugh is left untouched and the playwright’s gift of comic writing is given its fullest interpretation. Coming in mid-season it is hard to believe that any other show will reach this level of humor, overwhelm it, or remove from memory any of its comedic merriment. This is a perfect triple-A experience.
Noises Off plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival on Cheney Road in Dorset, Vermont through August 13. For information and tickets contact the box office at 802-867-2223.