Since its premiere in 1982, Michael Frayn’s popular farce Noises Off! has been embraced as a classic that affectionately depicts the ups and downs of life in the theater while also treating audiences to a hilarious evening of comedy. Parkland Theatre opens its 2015-16 season with a highly enjoyable production directed by former U of I Theatre Department faculty member Christine Sevec-Johnson that fully lives up to the show’s stellar reputation.
Noises Off! introduces audiences to a touring theater troupe that is becoming increasingly dysfunctional the more time they spend together, with romances gone bad and petty jealousies soon creating more drama offstage than on. The troupe is rehearsing and performing a sex farce titled Nothing On, which is one of those British comedies in which there are a lot of doors (eight!) and a lot of different groupings of people rushing in and out of those doors in various stages of undress as misunderstandings accumulate.
The first act of Noises Off! shows us the beleaguered director and hapless cast’s final rehearsal of Nothing On as they attempt to get the details of where they’re supposed to be when (and carrying what, and wearing what) exactly right before the curtain goes up. During Act 2, the tumultuous personal lives of the cast members threaten to derail the show completely, and the show’s revolving set drew a round of applause during intermission as it slowly spun around to allow the audience to see the behind-the-scenes view necessary to appreciate the impending backstage bedlam. The set then spins back around for Act 3 as the cast’s feuds and furies finally catastrophically manifest themselves onstage in front of a live audience.
All three acts are clearly extremely demanding for the show’s cast with their mixture of verbal and physical humor, increasingly so as the manic slapstick energy builds and a large number of props come into play. (Just keeping up with the numerous plates of sardines that are carried on and off stage is an impressive feat in itself!) The audience has to believe they’re watching everything completely fall apart onstage even as the cast really performs an impressively intricate dance in which timing is everything and every movement is carefully planned in advance.
Each actor needs to get their part of the complicated choreography exactly right so that the group can succeed, and Sevec-Johnson’s ensemble cooperates wonderfully to put on a seemingly seamless performance of controlled comic chaos. I had heard that two of the roles had been recast with only about a week to rehearse and was a little concerned about that going in to the show. To my relief, however, I discovered that it was almost impossible to tell who the new additions were. That’s amazingly impressive with a show this complex!
It almost feels wrong to draw attention to any actor in particular because there truly is no weak link in the cast, with each character getting their turn to draw big laughs and taking full advantage of it. The audience’s laughter on Opening Night started soon after J. Malia Andrus first took the stage as the play-within-a-play’s long-suffering housekeeper Mrs. Clackett and continued on as one actor after another entered and added their own character’s quirks and foibles to the volatile mix. Even actors who have slightly less flashy roles earlier on, such as would-be cast peacemaker Tafadzwa Diener and harried stage managers Chell Tyler and Jelinda Smith, are contributing fully and hilariously to the chaos by Act 3.
There were multiple times when there was so much ridiculousness happening onstage that I felt like I inevitably had to be missing funny nuances of people’s performances because I couldn’t look everywhere at once. (One of many reasons why I’m considering seeing the play again!) Anyone in need of a light-hearted evening out would be well-advised to check out this delightfully absorbing show this weekend. I can recommend sitting in the first few rows, with the warning that those in the very first row may need to watch out for the occasional flying sardine. It will be worth it.
Noises Off! continues its run this weekend at the Harold and Jean Miner Theater at Parkland, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday November 19th-November 21st and a Sunday matinee performance at 3 p.m. on the 22nd.
Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for students and seniors (65+), $9 for youth 12 and under, and $11 each for groups of 15 or more. Tickets for the Thursday, November 19th performance are half-price. Tickets can be reserved here at the Parkland Theatre website.
Photos by Scott Wells