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Noises Off
by Michael Frayn
Directed by Edward Stern
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 23, 2014

The Cast of Noises Off Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Cast of Noises Off
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much at a play, or heard so much laughter in the audience around me. Although I had never seen Noises Off before, I had heard much about it, mostly from people saying it was one of the funniest plays ever written, or at least in that last 50 years or so. It’s one of those plays I had always been meaning to see but never had the opportunity, and I’m glad that the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has provided that opportunity by choosing it to close out their 2013-2014 season.  As presented in this highly entertaining and precisely directed production at the Rep, this truly hilarious play has lived up to its reputation and then some.

Noises Off is a play within a play, cleverly structured so that we are presented with the same basic scene in three different views. The first act is a fairly straightforward presentation as a troupe of actors is in dress rehearsal for a UK tour of the fictional farce Nothing On.  When the show begins and the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett enters to answer the phone, we’re led to believe this is the play until the disembodied voice of director Lloyd Dallas (Fletcher McTaggart) begins speaking to the actress, Dotty Otley (Dale Hodges) as she goes about her business onstage.  She’s soon joined by the rest of the cast and the first act of their play proceeds mostly as normal, with a few interruptions in which bits of information are revealed about the various cast members and their relationships with one another.  It’s a fast-moving farce with a lot of physical comedy and much door-slamming, miscommunication, mistaken identities and general mayhem in an English country house. It gets funnier and funnier as the act continues, but that’s only the beginning.  In the first scene of the second act, the set turns around to show us another performance later in the tour’s run, this time shown from the perspective of backstage, as the actors’ and stagehands’ interpersonal intrigues interfere with their performances with ridiculous results. Finally, in the second scene of Act Two, we’re shown the onstage view again on closing night of the tour, as basically the whole performance surely and spectacularly descends into chaos, with nonstop slapstick comedy that makes it difficult for me to breathe from all the laughing.

As crazy as the action gets, a play like this demands much precision in order for all the jokes to land.  Kudos to director Edward Stern and the energetic cast for keeping the timing right. Everything is so fast-moving it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of what’s going on, but it doesn’t really matter because if you miss one joke, you’ll catch another one because they’re flying a mile-a-minute, and that’s literal flying in some cases, with baskets of flowers, liquor bottles and plates of sardines being tossed around left and right. There’s also some very particular choreography involving a prop pole axe that incites much riotous laughter.  This play is also something of a treat for anyone who’s been involved in the production of a play, with jokes about actors and theatre–one character needs the director to explain his motivation for seemingly every minute piece of business; another character is incapable of ad-libbing, so she just recites her lines on cue no matter what goes wrong onstage; the stage managers keep getting their calls mixed up, etc. And then there are the jokes about the personal lives of the actors, with outsized egos, romantic triangles, jealousy and more.  It’s all very involved and I wouldn’t want to describe it too much and spoil all the fun.  It’s best to just show up, sit down and enjoy the ride.

The ensemble for this production is more than game for all the non-stop silliness, with great energy and timing, with most of them playing dual roles except for McTaggart as vain and amorous director Lloyd, Rebeca Miller as the timid and mousy assistant stage manager (and all-purpose understudy) Poppy, and Kevin Sebastian as overworked Stage Manager Tim.  All of the performers were suitably hilarious in their roles, with standouts being Joneal Joplin as Selsdon, a hard-drinking veteran actor who plays a burglar in the play-within-a-play and who is constantly hiding liquor bottles around the stage, Hodges as both the overtaxed housekeeper Mrs. Clackett and the increasingly angry and evasive Dotty, John Scherer as Dotty’s egotistical paramour and co-star Garry Lejeune, and Victoria Adams-Zischke as the most level-headed of the performers, actress Belinda Blair.  The whole ensemble works together with well-practiced precision, as well, bringing verve and gusto to the increasingly chaotic proceedings.

Technically, the set by James Wolk is cleverly designed to look both like a fairly cheap touring set and, when turned around, like the backstage area behind the set, and the costumes by Elizabeth Covey are fittingly bright and colorful. All the technical elements, including Peter E. Sargent’s lighting and Rusty Wandall’s sound, are smoothly executed and lend well to the overall atmosphere of a relatively low-budget English touring company.

A play like this that fairly light on story and heavy on the jokes may seem easier to perform, but in fact it’s extremely difficult because everything that goes on must be kept running at the perfect pace. With a great cast and crew such as this production boasts, though, all the chaos can be managed to make the staging look easy. Noises Off is a fitting way to finish off the Rep’s season with a bang, and I highly recommend it. I would only add this warning: you may want to bring tissues when you see this play because you just might end up crying with laughter. It really is that funny.

Fletcher McTaggart, Rebeca Miller Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Fletcher McTaggart, Rebeca Miller
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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