Thalian Association ends their main-stage season on a high note with Michael Frayn’s ever-popular “Noises Off.” Possibly, the ultimate play-within-a-play ever written, the show lets the audience in on backstage life: intrigue, miscommunication, hijinks, jealousy, innuendo, laughter, and panic. One can only imagine director Robb Mann jumped up and down at the opportunity to direct a show that is such a favorite for theatre people. Clearly, he had the cream of the crop for casting.
In Act 1 the audience meets Dotty Otley (Denise S. Bass), an aging actress trying to produce a hit show before retirement. It is final dress rehearsal for “Nothing On,” and of course nothing is going well. She and the director, Lloyd Dallas (Randy Davis), cannot stop bickering about sardines (apparently, it is a play about plates of sardines, who knew?). In addition Garry Lejeune (Bradley Coxe) keeps interrupting rehearsal for nonsensical rhetorical monologues—usually ending in a non-sequitur question. Method actor Frederick (Freddy) Fellowes (Josh Bailey) can’t figure out the underlying symbolism of the script and is grappling with the twin crises of a failed marriage and an abhorrence of violence. Meanwhile, no one can find Selsdon (Eric Robinson). If it weren’t for Brooke (Vanessa Welch)—the devastatingly beautiful, phenomenally stupid and untalented ingénue—and steady, mother-hen Belinda (Amanda Young), things would fall to pieces.
At least the crew has everything under control, right? They always do, or at least that’s what they tell themselves. But if anyone believes Poppy (Emily Graham) and Tim (Qaadir Hicks) are in control of anything, I have a nice bridge I’d like to sell them. It is late, and everyone would like to get some sleep, but they still haven’t had a full run-through of the show, which opens in a matter of hours. Davis’ mounting desperation, frustration and eventual out-right belligerence is a pitch perfect.
“Noises Off” isn’t just fun for actors; for scenic designers, it’s a favorite. The script calls for the entire set to spin around for Act 2 in order to give audiences a backstage perspective. Rob Coluccio’s set looks just as good going as coming and makes magic pop in all the right places. For Act 2 the audience is treated to life backstage during a matinee performance about a month into the run of the show. By this time several love triangles (perceived and real) have emerged. The cast that wowed in Act 1 with rapid-fire dialog and phenomenal chemistry now demonstrate a command of physical comedy that must be seen and experienced to be believed.
About 10 minutes into Act 2, my date leaned over and commented that Shakespeare could have written this show. Indeed, he is right; it has hallmarks of the Bard’s scripts: love triangles, miscommunication, broad physical comedy, multiple entrances and exits in opposition to each other, and an audience in possession of knowledge characters lack.
In Act 3 the set turns back around so the audience can finally see the show up on its feet. The cast are now well into the show’s run and personal relationships have overtaken the script and catapulted everyone well beyond the point of absurdity. As we left the theater, my date said it had been a long time since he laughed so hard he cried. That was, without a doubt, the case by the time the curtain came down at the end of the show.
Though the script is incredibly funny, a really great cast is necessary to give it life and make it vibrant. “Noises Off” really is an ensemble show in every way. Denise Bass’ Dotty was so delightfully disgruntled I couldn’t help but laugh almost every time she came onstage.
What can I say about Welch’s Brooke? She gives such a convincing performance of bad acting it is really hard to rip my gaze from her (the fact she is incredibly beautiful and spends most of the show in her underwear is also another reason). Her foil in the love triangle is Emily Graham’s Poppy. How Robb Mann and costumer Lance Howell succeed in making the tall, strikingly gorgeous Graham look dowdy and frumpy is a mystery. (We will just have to chalk that up to theatre magic.)
Meanwhile, especially in Act 2, her mounting desperation and subsequent poor judgement make her an audience favorite. Josh Bailey and Bradley Coxe’s duel to the death/mild misunderstanding is good old-fashioned, no-holds-barred vaudeville, and it is made all the more engaging by a game of Three-card Monte with the whiskey bottle and flowers that occupy poor Eric Robinson and Qaadir Hicks. Together all four sell it with verve.
If only someone would cut Amanda Young’s Belinda some slack so she could stop trying to hold these people together. The poor woman is so tightly strung it is amazing she doesn’t pop!
All in all, the cast has a rollicking good time. Yet, the audience enjoys it more! So often the shows actors are attracted to lack box-office appeal for audiences. But “Noises Off” is a rare gem that combines plenty of inside jokes about theatre life, yet challenges onlookers with a script that is incredibly accessible and delightful. Anyone looking to introduce a late elementary school-aged child (or older) to theatre and have been wondering what show would be a good start, “Noises Off” is my vote. It is smart, funny and its cast give stupendous performances. It is a winner across the board!