“Noises Off!”, playing at Dexter’s Encore Theatre, is farce done right. The 1982 play by British playwright Michael Frayn is the story of a rag-tag theatre troupe struggling to put on a play despite incompetence, love triangles, short tempers, plenty of door-slamming and more.
Each of the three acts take place during a different point in the production. The first act, a dress rehearsal less than 24 hours before opening night, makes it clear that no one is prepared to open the show.
The second act, set entirely backstage during a performance weeks later, is filled with slapstick antics, made even more hilarious because everyone must stay quiet while the show haltingly continues on the other side of the wall.
The third act is where everything comes to a head during a performance towards the end of the show’s run. By now, tensions are high, secrets are revealed, and the actors are barely—and sometimes not at all—keeping their personal lives off the stage.
“I hadn't done a farce before this,” said Daniel A. Helmer, a part-time theatre lecturer at EMU, who plays the show’s long-suffering, philandering director. “….in fact, it was a bit intimidating, not only from the standpoint of the actor but as the new-to-me added fight choreographer. I knew the style, having grown up on Scooby Doo and having a deep, deserved respect for Charlie Chaplin.”
Helmer is wonderful as Lloyd; sarcastic and impatient with some dim-witted actors, and slightly smarmy, but charming, as he navigates spats with his two dalliances, Poppy, the harried assistant stage manager (the wonderfully put-upon Chris Purchis, an alumnus of EMU’s Arts Management program) and Brooke, the blonde bombshell, diva and ditz all rolled into one so-bad-it’s-awkward actress (the delightful Tara Tomcsik-Husak, who masters the difficult task of being a terrific actress playing a bad one).
The rest of the characters are equally as deliberately caricature-ish. Rusty Mewha’s physical and facial comedy is spot on as Freddy, the dim-witted but earnest method actor, and Wendy Katz Hiller is a riot as Dotty, an aging former star whose memory is failing. Julia Garlotte has the most straightforward role in Belinda, the peacemaker and most reliable of the actors, and she brilliantly finds bits of comedy in the least outrageous role.
Derek Ridge has a blast, and is a blast, as Garry, the stalwart leading man, who is commanding when he is speaking his lines, but is otherwise unable to finish a sentence, often trailing off with “…d’you know what I mean?”
The cast rounds out with the comically droll Keith Kalinowski as Tim, the stage manager who finds himself doing more than his share of work, and Dale Dobson, wonderfully loveable as Selsdon, a seasoned stage veteran with a tendency to wander off the set (and forget to come back) in his pursuit of alcohol.
To say that the actors’ timing is what makes the play work is true, but overlooks the splendidly even-handed directing of Tobin Hissong, who brings all the chaos into focus with help from set, costume, and props designers Jennifer Maiseloff, Sharon Larkey Ulrick, and Anne Donevan, who find the perfect balance between making things look real and fake.
Tyler Chinn, an EMU alumnus, provides subtle but beautiful lighting design, and Chris Goosman’s sound design is particularly effective.
Special mention should be made of the running crew, Timothy Brayman, Evan Colby, Andy Galicki, Julia Koegler, and EMU alum Ashley Gokey, who expertly rotate the set during the intermissions.
“Noises Off!” brilliantly shows how sometimes, backstage “goings-on” are as entertaining as the ones onstage. The show runs at Dexter’s Encore Theatre through Feb. 19. Information: www.theencoretheatre.org