In October 1995, Huntington Beach Playhouse staged a month-long performance of Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” an outrageous British sex farce first produced on Broadway in 1983. This production of the well-known English play was fundamentally successful, though it had some unfortunate quirks. This play within a play takes the audience from the troubled final rehearsal of the internal show, “Nothing On,” to the catastrophically wrong performance three months later. The basic premise of this show is the theatrical mantra, “the show must go on,” and this concept is exemplified during the inexhaustible performance.
The play is full of petty rivalries, anger and jealousy and this production has a prevailing mood of hilarity and frustration as it embodies all the issues that arise backstage during a theatrical performance. The play was written to be a parody of the British sex farce, a contemporary literary tradition, by revealing the intent of the show as well as how swiftly a production can fall apart due to the personal issues and personalities of those involved in keeping the show together. Frayn structured the play very as carefully as a mathematician working through a complex problem.
The show begins front of house during the pre-production final rehearsal and Frayn builds the action from amusing to frantic as it moves on to act two to hysterically convoluted in act three. The basic script of the play is surprising but it does use a few theatrical contrivances. For example, the basis of “Nothing On,” the play within the play that is the foundation of for the story, is dependent on look-alikes. The bag and box brought in by the characters of Brooke and Garry is identical to the one brought in by Belinda and Frederick, or Freddy.
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At then end of the single act of “Nothing On” that is shown, an Arab sheik comes in that is a double for Freddy. Freddy himself displays unease with the plot and this coincidence and seeks an explanation, drawing the audience’s attention away from the deliberate set up to the amusing discussion between Freddy and Lloyd. Frayn’s use of these contrivances detracts slightly from the story, but the play is workable and highly successful. This particular production of the play interprets Frayn’s script literally and directly, without distinctive personality or variation.
However, since the basic script was humorously sound, the staging was highly entertaining and amusing. Its intent is to amuse and entertain as the show depicts the behind-the-scenes activity that occurs during a touring play’s production and the goal is met with apparent ease. The effort is definitely worthwhile as the action moves seamlessly from one act to another. The different theatrical devices were used to bring together the various aspects of this show to one united presentation.
Mary and Martin Eckmann, the show’s set designers, were tasked with creating a set that was an intimate part of the story being told. The set is as necessary to this show as each actor and requires two separate, full-stage sets to be designed. Basically, the construction is two stories with a flight of stairs and four doors downstairs and four more doors upstairs and must convey the image of a quaint English country cottage. A complication of the set is that it must be completely turned around for act two, and then return to the original staging in act three.
The Eckmann’s provided a scene that was not only workable within the necessary script devices but aesthetically pleasing as well. The set is a point of humor, particularly in the first act when the set-up itself is made fun of. In the final rehearsal, Brooke is opening a door upstairs while Freddy is closing a door downstairs: one will not open and the other will not close. This is necessary to the script as well as the activity on the stage as the other functionality of the set. The other aspects of this production have a lesser, though no less necessary, effect on the action on stage. Read about a ll the wrong moves
Of particular importance is the work of the property manager. The four plates of sardines – being passed around from actor to actor, tossed on the floor, and dumped on the head – are built directly into the action. Other examples include the bottle of whiskey that is passed around in act two and the axe that Dotty (Mary O’Brien) uses to cut off Garry’s tie, also in act two. The second act also reveals how props are arranged backstage for the audience to witness both their (the props) organization and how quickly they can become chaotic.
Costumes are less prevalent, used to distinguish the positions of each character within the story: Dotty is dressed as a housekeeper and Garry is dressed as a businessman. Some points of contention with this aspect are the costumes worn by Brooke and Belinda. Belinda’s was a startling red suit that was distracting and drew the eye rather than allowing the action influence where the viewer’s eye fell. The issue with Brooke’s costume was that, as she spent half of the production cavorting in her underwear, her undergarments were far too revealing and caused difficulties for the actress onstage, requiring frequent adjustment.
Finally, the lighting was very simplistic, merely a brightly lit stage without spotlight or complications. It remains constant through act two and three, altering slightly to accommodate the change in set from one to the other and back again. Since the action is in multiple locations onstage at any given time, it is appropriate to use general lighting rather than specific highlights to accentuate a single aspect. The core appeal of “Noises Off” is found in intricate comedic timing and deceptively difficult physical comedy and relentless dexterity.
Portraying a play that is falling apart within a play that is planned and performed so well is very complex. Garry’s character, portrayed by Bill Peters, falls down the stairs and hops around with his shoes tied; Brooke (Jessica Margaret Dean) must fall over a couch; and Freddy (Reges D’Emidio) hops up the stairs with his pants around his ankles. Each of these performers must possess not only acting ability but be able to convincingly fall and hop around in a natural manner. They achieve this through precise and thoughtful direction from Darlene Hunter-Chaffee. Each actor was carefully chosen and, for the most part, succeeds in their role.
Garry and Freddy are particularly enjoyable in their fight during the second act as jealousy overrides reason. Hunter-Chaffee had to create an environment of careful timing and exacting footwork as each character worked through their various routine. Her success is largely based on their ability to carry out her direction and most of the performers succeed in their quest. What was particularly enjoyable in this production was Brenan Baird, the actor who played onstage director Lloyd Dallas. Baird used his voice, action and gestures to convey the sexually prolific Lloyd and his various quirks.
When he says, “I can’t do it in five minutes, it’s not physiologically possible,” he gestures with his hands in such a way that the entire theater full of people erupted in laughter. What did not work was Jessica Margaret Dean, the actress who played Brooke. She was deadpan, unconvincing and mechanical. This is evident in act one when Lloyd is speaking to her and she is supposed to play dumb. Instead she jumps in a distracting fashion and her words are unintelligible and poorly related. Overall, this show was hilarious and convincingly presented as each facet of the show worked together to achieve positive results.
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