Michael Frayn’s 1982 comedy Noises Off, which will be performed by the St. Ambrose theatre department this weekend, is a fast-paced, riotously wacky farce full of witty lines and tremendous physical comedy, and I can’t believe that, prior to Tuesday night’s rehearsal, I had never seen it before. This has, indeed, been my loss.
Noises Off takes its title from a director’s call when too much noise is coming from backstage and interfering with the onstage action, and the comedy reveals the relationships between six actors, their director, their stage manager, and the assistant stage manager as they rehearse and then perform Nothing On, the play-within-the-play. With its fast-paced dialogue and quick action, not to mention its various relationship twists that take place, there is a lot to follow. But even though one might not keep up with every bit of action or dialogue, the play is hugely entertaining, as its highly successful runs over the years will attest.
A review of a rehearsal has its obvious drawbacks and challenges; however, because the St. Ambrose production is for one weekend only, it was off to review a rehearsal I went. I am happy to report that director Daniel Rairdin-Hale has assembled a very fine cast that worked well together as a whole and provided an energy-charged evening as they went through the paces of some of the most amazingly detailed and choreographed physical comedy I have ever seen. The script is demanding in its comedic requirements, and yet the performers’ energy level and timing never seemed to lag.
As there were two more rehearsals to follow before opening night, there was, understandably, more characterization work to be done on the part of some of the actors. In addition, there were some technical issues. I lost quite a lot of the dialogue, as it was only the performers’ second night working with mics and technicians were still adjusting the sound levels. And two of the actresses, unfortunately, tended to shriek their lines when things got particularly frantic, which will hopefully be corrected by performance time. But despite these factors, there were segments of the show that really worked on Tuesday. It was like watching a sculptor carving in marble; I could see some elements that had already taken a fine, sharp focus, while discerning other promising elements lying just beneath the surface.
Becca Brazel has nice comic timing portraying Mrs. Clackett, the middle-aged housekeeper of an old English home owned by an absent landlord, and Sam Jones stands out as Roger, an estate agent seeking to let said home to Vicki (Madison Auge), the latter of whom seems mostly interested in letting him. Jones is genuinely entertaining as he delivers his sure-fire lines as a pompous twit, and never seems to miss on the physical comedy either, including an amazing tumble down a staircase in which he subsequently loses a shoe that flies several feet away. Philip (Jordan Webster-Moore) and his wife Flavia (Kayla Lansing), the owners of the house, eventually arrive, and through well-timed entrances and exits, the couples are not aware of the others in the house. All this action features much slapstick, a few pratfalls, the comedic dropping of pants, and an actress in lovely underwear who keeps losing her contacts.
Nothing On’s rehearsal is often interrupted as the actors air their insecurities and bungle attempts at dealing with props (principally sardines) and remembering their lines, and grasp at understanding their motivations. There is also a lot of interplay between exasperated director Lloyd (Jackson Green), love-struck assistant stage manager Poppy (Amelia Fischer), stage manager Timothy (Max Moline), and elderly actor Selsdon (Nevada Nilsson),as they not only try to come to terms with their inadequacies on stage, but begin to reveal their relationships with one another.
While Act I is enjoyable, its primary purpose is to set us up for the amazingly orchestrated chaos that takes place behind the set in Act II. Perfect timing is required, as the actors enter and exit their cues on the set of Nothing On, and synchronize this with the mimed, nonstop slapstick that takes place backstage. On Tuesday, it didn't appear that anyone missed a beat during these physically demanding interchanges.
The production of Nothing On finally disintegrates into complete chaos in Act III, as the show-within-the-show falls victim to the actors’ egoistic, self-obsessed jealousies and pettiness. Like singing just a bit off-key to make it sound funny, it takes a lot of talent to successfully portray such ineptitude. Best wishes to Noises Off's Rairdin-Hale and the St. Ambrose cast and crew in creating what promises to be a highly polished, entertaining work this weekend.
Noises Off runs at St. Ambrose University's Galvin Fine Arts Center (2101 North Gaines Street, Davenport) Friday, April 15, through Sunday, April 17, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)333-6251 or visit SAU.edu/theatre.