Chicago Theatre Review
Sardines, Flapping Doors and Loads of Laughs
Noises Off – Brightside Theatre
As elderly housekeeper Mrs. Clackett begins exiting, while balancing the telephone, a newspaper and her ubiquitous platter of sardines, she suddenly stops (as does her Cockney accent) and begins asking herself, “I take the sardines? No, I leave the sardines. No, I take the sardines…” Audiences unfamiliar with Michael Frayn’s laugh-a-minute farce suddenly begin to wonder if the actress (the excellent Nancy Kolton in the role of Dotty Otley playing Mrs. Clackett) has lost her way. And indeed she has, but that’s the gimmick behind this play-within-a-play. A second rate farce entitled “Nothing On” is being rehearsed by a third-rate British theatrical company, but the audience only comes to understand this when Lloyd, their hard-working director (nicely played with bombast and bluster by Dennis Schnell) interrupts Dotty’s muttering to provide some much-needed direction from the auditorium aisles. From then on the “dress rehearsal” (or is it “the technical”?) continues to stop and start as each new problem arises, and with them comes renewed laughter.
For the typical audience member, this is not only a highly entertaining farce, complete with its requisite fast-pace, slamming doors, clothes coming off and naughty innuendos bouncing between its broadly-written characters; it’s also a brilliantly-disguised look at what it takes to mount such a high-energy play. Thespians in the audience will find the show a side-splitting reminder of what can and often does go wrong during a production; but for those familiar with this script, they know that this is a show that requires boundless energy, razor-sharp timing and carefully choreographed staging.
BrightSide’s audience is, in fact, left breathless with laughter, almost from the beginning. A well-deserved standing ovation is offered during the curtain call for the company’s hard work. However, some of director David Belew’s staging, while undoubtedly rehearsed to precision, sometimes gets a bit sloppy in performance. Michael Frayn wrote a script overflowing with sharp comic bits that depend upon precision and tight pacing. His play leaves the gate at a full gallop and never lets up until the final moment. In this production, unfortunately, there are times when the play loses some of its steam, the momentum slows down and the potential for comedy is sacrificed. There are problems with focus in the second act, which is set backstage. The same play we saw being rehearsed in Act I is now being performed on the road a month later. The cast plays actors not only performing the farce as rehearsed, but also having to cope with all kinds of personal, offstage drama. The script is difficult but pure genius. Yet with so much going on in Act II (fast-paced entrances and exits, the director’s attempt to appease his two lovers, jealousy that escalates to revenge upon the entire cast), it’s vital that the audience knows where to focus its attention at every moment. In this, Mr. Belew is sometimes less successful.
Although it appears to be an actor’s nightmare, Act III is far more consistent and thus ends the night with a comedic bang. By now the audience is familiar with the story of the play-within-the-play. However, since this cast has supposedly been touring all over England for the past two months, their backstage dramas have escalated and supersede their work onstage. “Nothing On” becomes a very different play by this point, with the cast having to improvise so that the show can, indeed, go on. The audience continues to enjoy the scrambling, backstabbing and feuding, and it’s here where Mr. Belew’s work is at its best.
This is not to say that “Noises Off” isn’t a thoroughly entertaining production, from start to finish. The cast is superb, offering many standout performances. BrightSide favorite Tin Penavic is terrific in a kind of French Stewart (Harry on TV’s “Third Rock from the Sun”) interpretation of Frederick Fellows. With his squinting, downcast eyes and a naive, almost dimwitted reaction to the chaos surrounding him, Mr. Penavic is a riot. His reaction to violence and blood becomes funnier as the play progresses, but nothing tops seeing this actor hopping up and down stairs with his pants around his ankles. Talented Nancy Kolton sparkles with energy, elocution and fantastic comic timing as veteran British actress Dotty Otley. She’s hilarious trying to juggle some challenging dialogue, along with countless plates of sardines, sheaves of newspapers and a delinquent telephone. Her relationship with young Garry Lejeune, played to manic, Monty Python-esque perfection by Ryan Bennett, is appropriately quirky but sweet. As a verbose, pompous leading man, Mr. Bennett is wonderful, particularly as he loses control and turns into a bumbling idiot, right before our eyes. Always ready to expound upon any subject, but never able to finish a sentence, Mr. Bennett is hilarious.
Bennet’s genius reaches its zenith trying to maintain character and keep the play going, all the while dealing with an exasperating ingenue (Julie Bayer, alone worth the price of admission as Brooke Ashton) who’s always losing her contact lenses and just keeps spouting her lines in the order she memorized them, no matter what’s happening onstage. Special kudos go to this actress for running up and down stairs in heels while appearing comfortable in only a bra, the briefest of briefs and a garter belt. Julie Ann Kornak turns Belinda Blair into a maternal busy-body who knows all and can’t wait to tell all. Ellen Cribbs elicits the audience’s sympathy (and laughter) as put-upon assistant stage manager and female understudy, Poppy Norton-Taylor. Ken Kaden has everything under control as selectively hard-of-hearing, alcoholic senior thespian, Selsdon Mowbray; and Ryan Breig’s backstage handy man and male understudy Tim earns much laughter and admiration for being the Jack-of-all-trades that keeps the production going.
Appropriately labeled “the funniest farce ever written” by the New York Post, this is an hilarious alternative to the abundance of traditional holiday fare. With Eric Luchen’s totally functional set (that completely rotates in Act II, so that the audience can enjoy the backstage drama) and Jerica Hucke’s perfect, colorful costumes, this is a theatrical experience Naperville audiences won’t soon forget. This play truly sets the pace for BrightSide’s fifth season of farces.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 30-November 15 by BrightSide Theatre at North Central College’s Meiley-Swallow Hall, 31 S. Ellsworth Ave., Naperville, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-447-8497 or by going to www.brightsidetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.