The 2018 Winter Olympics can have their graceful figure skating, their daring ski jumping, and their exhausting biathlon. Artistry’s latest production boasts the elusive competitive events of the cactus toss, the fire-ax relay, and the contact high-step. Not to mention the highly anticipated face-off of ‘Shoelaces vs. Staircase’ and the wondrous choreography in the ‘Stagehand and Set’ routine. In lieu of gold medals, however (theatre can only afford so much), plates of squashed sardines will be awarded to all participants.
I’m talking about Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” of course. Unofficially considered the funniest play ever written, the 1982 British play-within-a-play (more like farce-within-a-farce) is about the onstage/backstage antics of a mid-level traveling theatre troupe performing the show ‘Nothing On.’ Showmances and exhaustion, along with phone-cords and bed sheets, get in the way and high jinx ensues. Just imagine your favorite Bugs Bunny/Yosemite Sam cartoon on stage and you have a fairly good idea of what goes on.
I could attempt to summarize the plot, but, quite frankly, it isn’t that important and only exists as a means to achieve rambunctious hilarity. Artistic Director Benjamin McGovern sums it up best in his winking program note: “...there’s nothing serious about this play-within-a-play.”
What is important is to understand how this play gives definition to an ensemble piece. “Noises Off” is truly a team sport. It quickly became evident how much each of the actors depends upon and trusts everyone else on stage. Michael Frayn’s script is full of biting and rollicking one-liners, but it is the physical comedy (see the Theatre Olympic events previously mentioned) where this team of nine truly shines.
The character work was also incredible to witness. Angela Timberman’s gradual unraveling towards lunacy and helplessness with the phone cord had me in stitches. Emily Sue Bengtson was just fantastic with her timing and delivery and worked well, especially, off of Paul Rutledge’s completely lost Garry. Neal Skoy squeezed every last ounce of humor out of his overworked and exasperated Tim; the audience was in the palm of his hand. And the brooding silhouette of Riley McNutt’s frazzled director roaming the house was a delightful image. I relished his dry sarcasm and his last-nerve performance on and off-stage made me bark with laughter.
Helming what I can only imagine to be a stressful and daunting production is Artistry’s Artistic Director Benjamin McGovern. There is only respect for what Mr. McGovern was able to achieve; I feel like I witnessed a master class in blocking. I just can’t fathom how Mr. McGovern and Lee Johnson, the stage manager, were able to keep track of everything and not completely go insane. It’s also very clear that Mr. McGovern created a safe and playful rehearsal environment because there were so many creative and juicy ‘bits’ in this show that I gave up writing them down. (Every time my eyes left the stage the audience would hoot and holler and I missed yet another bit of comedic gold.)
Accentuating the zaniness of the theatre troupe were Ed Gleeman’s costumes, which were wonderfully distinctive. More doors than walls, Rick Polenek’s set was completely utilized and left no pratfalls untapped. I especially loved the Act 2 backstage look of the set combined with Grant E. Merges’ lighting design; it made me sigh with happiness. The transformation of backstage to onstage was also delightful (kudos to the crew!) and I especially enjoyed that it was a choreographed moment.
If I had any qualms with the show, it would be that I don’t think the full potential of humor has been tapped...yet. But this is almost guaranteed to improve as the show moves through its run, marinates, and gets better with age. Moments will become tighter and the actors will be able to spend more time playing and less time worrying about which plate of sardines they aren’t supposed to carry off stage and hand off to a hot-water-box-wielding-tripping-hazard.
I would love to come back and see the show before it closes, just to see how it has evolved, but I don’t think there’s much chance of that happening since “Noises Off” was practically sold out before it opened. Call today if you want to have any remote chance of scoring a ticket! Artistry’s run of the show overlaps with the Olympics, but it’s NBC that may need to be concerned about competing viewership. This show may not be the funniest I’ve ever seen, but it is definitely on the podium.