Dallas — Theatre Three’s longstanding Monday opening nights are especially vibrant because actors all over town come on their night off. This week’s opening of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off at our town’s venerable theater-in-the round venue was especially effusive at the after-party because so many actors in the audience were congratulating the production’s actors in this classic farce playing actors portraying actors in a sex comedy that goes bonkers before the show is done. All the world’s a farce! Right?
Noises Off, which premiered in London 1982, documents the messy relationships and countless mishaps that arise in a theater production of a grinding old farce set in an English country house. (Moviegoers will remember the hit 1992 Peter Bogdanovich film adaptation starring Carol Burnett and Michael Caine.) The play’s three acts feature the “cast” of Nothing On performing the first act three times. Director Kara-Lynn Vaeni and a physically full-on cast builds the mayhem, door by door, bloody nose by bruised ego, from a disastrous tech rehearsal before opening night, a turbulent backstage free-for-all during a matinee a month into the run, and the final, off-the-rails show on tour.
Each time, tensions between the cast and director about exits and entrances and who is chumping whom exhilarate until the show loses all resemblance to the original script, and explodes in the kind of mayhem we usually associate with war or a total breakdown of civilization. We laugh at the nuttiness and dismay of a play screwing up because we’ve all lost our lines throwing a party or managing project or blowing a relationship to smithereens through sheer mishap and misalignment. You just got to laugh. The twist that T3 gives it – aside from managing the requirements of the two-story set, seen from front and then the back and then the front again – is that the actors in Nothing On are Texans, on a tour of the Lone Star State. We hear mentions of Wichita Falls, Austin, Houston and several DFW references. (In the original, Nothing On tours the U.K.)
In the first act, we’re warned that this troupe might not be ready for prime time when former TV star Dotty Otley (a dazed, indignant Kristin McCollum) tells director Lloyd Dallas (a wired, ironic Michael Federico, clinging desperately to script truth) that she’s doing her best to remember when to bring in the sardines and what to say when she exits. “I open my mouth and I never know what’s gonna come out,” says the star now playing a housekeeper. Who cannot relate to this poor woman depending on a prop for a cue and a laugh? It’s even funnier because McCollum shifts from a heavy Texas accent as Dotty to a Cockney one as Mrs. Clackett, her character in Nothing On.
In short order, we meet the rest of the cast and crew, as these sweetly ego-driven thespians struggle to maintain their thin dignity and pretensions as the rehearsal staggers on.
Always vivid Catherine D. DuBord is Brooke Ashton, the leggy actress playing the role of the willing sexpot in Nothing On. Obsessed with her exercise and yoga regimen, she’s constantly stretching between scenes, or running up and down the stairs and in and out of the set’s many doors. Director Lloyd, while admiring her white thighs and pert bust bared in her scanty costume, must assume the voice of God: “Hold it,” he says, “and they held it.” God takes a valium while stagehand Tim (nerved-up actor wannabe Mac Welch) fixes a wedged door and reminds the director they worked together at Plano Rep.
The girls are fun farce, but the guys also get some classic comic moments in the show. Ashley Wood, his deliberate questions beautifully slowing the manic pace of the show, is touchingly insecure as Frederick Fellowes, the actor who needs to know what motivates his character to climb the stairs or question the ever-present sardines. This man knows how to walk with his pants around his ankles! Tadeo Martinez is a dashing, balletic Garry LeJeune, the young foreign actor with a flair for springing onto a scene, and carrying on a strenuous affair with the aging TV star for reasons even she seems confused about.
Adrian Churchill is spot-on as the veteran stumbling drunk Selsdon Mowbray, who breaks window after window, making his entrance late or early and always comically. Chris Sanders, the cast gossip, keeps us informed as to the sexual entanglements of the company members, and definitely makes the grandest howling voices-over in Act II when we see what’s going on behind the scenes. Robin Clayton, as Poppy Norton-Taylor, is a bit tremulous and sometimes inaudible as the stage manager with a crush on Lloyd, but she and Welch’s Tim deliver the laughs in repeatedly cuing the audience to take their seats in a funny bit the second act.
Act II of the play is deservedly famous for the chaos that goes on backstage, when traditionally the set revolves and the “real-life” actors are arguing or flirting or trying to get a door open to get back onto the stage. Theatre Three Artistic Director Jeffrey Schmidt did some sleight-of-hand set designing for the production to pull off this trick in their arena-style theater-in-the-round. Part of the fun in the show is the surprising solution for our backstage view, and watching the swift and clever realignment in Act III, when speedy stage hands and actors reveal how the gigantic puzzle pieces of two flights of stairs, multi-doors, French windows and beaded curtains fit together to take us back through the rabbit hole to a country manor with tacky wallpaper and souvenir dishes on the walls. In a clever touch, the balusters on the upstairs railing are sardine-shaped.
Susan Yanofsky’s bright costumes fit perfectly and help sort prop girl from leading lady. I also loved the cheeky program-in-the-program with all the bios of actors featured in Nothing On. Mason York’s sound design is especially sharp in Act II when we hear dialogue from two sides of the set. Aaron Johansen and Lindsay Silver designed the lighting. This is one of the shows where the props are both telling and funny, whether it’s a hot water bottle shoved through the wrong door or still another platter of sardines leading to a totally flubbed line.
Noises Off ‘s manic pace makes you laugh and wears you out like real life on deadline, whether on stage or behind the scenes. At one point Federico’s exhausted, furious Lloyd says, “I think this show is beyond the help of a director.” I might say that about my last family dinner, but I certainly wouldn’t say it about Vaeni’s firm grip on this rousing production.
Take a break for a belly laugh over the holidays, and an affirmation that all the world’s a stage — and that includes the totally chaotic backstage parts.