It’s a testament to the playwright, cast and director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s Noises Off that something as subtle as a missed stage direction can become a hilarious running joke in a play.
Yet somehow, this cast pulls it off. Michael Frayn’s meticulously crafted script, written in 1982, demands much from the actors in terms of range and comedic styling, but the CSF actors gracefully make it happen.
Noises Off is a play about a middling theater company’s sorry attempt at putting on a rather terrible British sex farce called “Nothing On.” The comedy in Noises Off lies in the dysfunctional cast’s desperate attempts to keep the production together as its actors’ interpersonal relationships slowly start to fall apart.
“Nothing On” begins with the housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett, kicking back on the couch with a plate of sardines. Her employer is out of town and has left his house, a beautiful 16th-century manor in need of a renter, in her care, and she is ready to enjoy her afternoon off by watching television. But then a real estate agent, Roger, thinking the house empty, enters with Vicki, a comely coquette he hopes to woo by claiming he owns the house. He tells a surprised Mrs. Clackett Vicki is actually a prospective renter before running off to find the bedroom.
Shortly after, the real owner of the house, Philip, and his wife, Flavia, enter, but they are evading tax agents and tell the housekeeper to not alert any supposed real estate agents of their presence. And so goes the farce-within-a-farce of missed encounters, slammed doors and sardines.
The first act of Noises Off takes place on the set during the dress rehearsal the night before “Nothing On” opens. The hapless cast seems to think it’s a “technical” rather than a full-on dress rehearsal, and they casually break character, flub stage directions and ask the director inane questions about the play. You feel director Lloyd Dallas’ (Tim McCracken) pain as he tries to navigate the bloated egos, fragile psyches and disparate intelligence levels of the actors under his direction.
The set plays an important role in the play, providing the actors with multiple doors to enter and exit from, windows to open and telephone cords to become entangled with. During the second act, the set rotates 180 degrees and we get to watch “Nothing On” get mangled from backstage. And in the final act we get to see the bedraggled actors, now near the end of the 10-week run of “Nothing On,” implode on stage as they butcher the performance in the most hilarious ways imaginable.
This is not a script that can be phoned in.
The actors must each play two roles, the character and the character’s character in “Nothing On.” The CSF actors are more than up to the task. Leslie O’Carroll plays the bumbling Dotty Otley/Mrs. Clackett with fantastic comedic timing — the way she makes forgetting a plate of sardines a hilarious joke is impressive. Ian Anderson plays dim-witted Frederick Fellowes with squinty confusion, and Jamie Ann Romero’s revoltingly cute and somewhat dim Brooke Ashton/Vicki is a fabulous blend of physical and acted comedy.
Ten-season CSF vet Geoffrey Kent leads the way as Garry Lejeune/Roger, a character who talks in mighty inflections yet can’t seem to finish any thought of consequence. Kent turns lines that would be inconsequential duds in the hands of lesser actors into gut-busting laughers, and how he manages triple duty as Orsino in CSF’s Twelfth Night while also being the fight director for all four major plays in the current season is astounding.
Kent directs the Noises Off cast in an elaborately choreographed slapstick bit during the second act, in which the actors scurry around backstage, trying to make sure the show goes on while trying to kill their fellow cast members. At one point all the actors try to kill each other with an axe, and it changes hands five or six times in about a minute. But the slapstick drags into the third act, and if there’s one criticism
I can make about the play, it’s that it’s a little heavy on the physical comedy. “Less is more” would have been a better philosophy.
Nevertheless, I haven’t laughed at a play like I laughed at Noises Off in a very long time. It’s definitely worth seeing.