PROVO — Noises Off! is one of my favorite scripts from one of my favorite genres. This classic show by Michael Frayn is a textbook example of farces in general, as well as a great example of the play-within-a-play structure. That’s right. This is a farce about a farce, the scale of which presents quite the challenge to directors and actors to pull it off successfully. The production staff at the Echo Theatre have risen to this challenge and managed to fit this massively entertaining show into their little Provo theater space.
The story of Noises Off! follows the cast and crew of a fictional farce called Nothing On as they go from their final, stress-laden rehearsal, to the drama that happens backstage during long runs of a show, and finally shows the complete breakdown that can come from too many hours with the same people. The main players involved in putting on the fictional show are all of the ones that anyone would find in any real theatre company: the overstressed stage manager, the angry and sarcastic director, the know-it-all actor, the one that never finishes his… you know? And so the list goes until you have quite the impressive cross section of actors.
The first commendation should go to director Jeffery Lee Blake. The physical comedy alone in this show would be enough to make a director use those charts that quarterbacks use to memorize running patterns, and Blake handled it skillfully. The show contains all of the elements of two farces, one inside the other. Yet with all of that potential craziness, Blake was able to keep the action mostly focused on the specific joke that the audience was supposed to notice at that specific moment. There were a few times, especially during the monumental second act, where there was almost too much happening at once and I almost got lost amidst all the action. However, I would rather a production of Noises Off! have too much going on, rather than not enough. Blake was also very mindful of the space he was working in and the great set that he had at his disposal. Stage pictures were well balanced and the whole stage was used.
The acting in the show was wonderful. There were some moments that weren’t quite as polished as they needed to be, but overall, it didn’t really matter. As an admitted nitpicker, I was surprised to see that there were even whole sections of the show where I have no notes, simply because I was so engrossed in the action. The actors were immensely committed to their roles and this particularly showed in the intense scenes of physical comedy. I keep thinking back to the second act which takes place backstage. Essentially no lines are spoken in this act, and the few that are all happen offstage, yet the actors still had a stage presence that kept my attention the whole time.
Though almost all of the performances were strong, I think the best actor of the evening was Luone Ingram playing Dotty Otley (who plays the servant, Mrs. Clackett in the fictional show). Ingram was able to keep her character completely grounded, and yet she was still hilarious. Her honest portrayal of Dotty allowed the audience to easily connect to the show and to put themselves in the action. There was even an element of pity as in the third act and it because clear just how badly things were going for this character.
I also loved Tyler Harris as Gary/Roger. He had an intensity that was unmatched by any of the other actors. His delivery of the unfinished lines also felt quite natural and had a great flow to them. It was as if Gary was completely unaware of the fact that he wasn’t completing his sentences, and that’s exactly why the delivery worked as well as it did. There was absolutely no pretense in his jokes. I loved watching it.
Though the cast was very good overall I did feel that Joel Applegate and Zac Bell stuck out a little in the wrong direction. Their performances were both of an acceptable quality, but they had a mellowness in their performances that seemed to not quite fit with the frantic tone of the show. Each actor did well in their own right, but I’m not sure the decision worked quite as they expected.
The other major detraction in the acting was the mix of British and American dialect. At times, half of the cast would be doing a British accent, which is what the show calls for, and half the cast wasn’t really even trying. Then for some reason, it seemed to switch, with those who were more “American” now sounding British, and the British now sounding more American. This inconsistency was also highlighted by the language of the script. Michael Frayn included a number of British colloquialisms into his lines, such as the constant use of “love” to refer to someone (e.g. “Thanks for doing that, love”), which sounded entirely out of place when many of the actors weren’t even trying the accent.
Talking about this production wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the elephant in the room: the set. The set for Noises Off! is extremely particular. There are a number of doors that need to be in particular places. There needs to be multiple levels with a staircase. Oh and to top it all off, in act two, the audience needs to see “backstage” with all of the same elements in place. Generally, this is accomplished by building a massive unit set on a rotating platform or a rotating stage. But the Echo is a relatively tiny space. It is only a small black box theater that seats maybe one-hundred people if everyone squishes. So, I was intrigued to see how set designer Matt Boulter was going to work his clown car magic.
I have mixed feelings about the results. Boulter made sure to keep all of the necessary elements when constructing the set: there were plenty of doors that could handle all of the slamming, there were stairs and railings in all of the right spots, etc. But rather than being a full unit set, Boulter divided his set into three main sections and place each section on a rotating wagon. This made the scene change before intermission look like a mix between a rodeo and one of those sliding puzzles that only lets you move one piece at a time. The actors were the ones in charge of moving the set around, and saying that it was cumbersome is an understatement. And this is where I am really divided on how I feel about it.
As the actors were moving the set, they stayed in character and some fast-paced circus type music played. But since the scene change dialogue is not in the script, it means that the actors had to ad lib everything that they said. This means that as they were moving a massive set piece around and shouting to each other to watch out for an audience member, or a ceiling fan, or an actor, they had to do so in character. Sometimes it was hilarious, sometimes it bombed. And since both scene changes took upwards of three minutes, it was a little too much for comfort. In short, I loved the set, I liked the concept of the scene changes, but I still lost interest.
I love this show, and this production by the Echo Theatre was well done, especially considering the numerous limitations of performing a farce in a black box. If you have never had a chance to see this farce, this is a good one to start with. There might be some things that could be polished a little better, but in the end, this show is just plain fun.