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Sunday, 23 March 2014 18:52

Doors and sardines—that's what it's all about!

Written by Steve Callahan
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John Scherer and Ruth Pferdehirt
John Scherer and Ruth Pferdehirt repstl.org / Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The Rep has opened that hilarious backstage slap-stick sex-farce, "Noises Off"This amazing play by Michael Frayn has left audiences breathless with laughter since 1982 when it won both the Olivier and the Evening Standard awards for Best Comedy.  With the help of a few modernizing touch-ups by the playwright over the years it shows no sign of aging.  It's still bright and fresh and goofy and wild and delightful—AND an immense challenge for any company attempting it.

When we enter the theatre we see a large living room with a broad staircase sweeping up to a balcony.  It's designed by James Wolk;  it's done in the Rep's tradition of unfailing technical perfection.  And it has seven doors, an archway and a French window.   Nine exits!  Well, this really must be a farce.  This scene is the stage-set for a farce-within-a-farce.  A touring company of actors are struggling to get through their final rehearsal and it quickly becomes clear that they are desperately unready for opening night.

Dottie, who plays the housekeeper, is a woman of some years and her memory just ain't what it used to be.  All those words!  All that movement!   All those sardines!  She can keep one or another in her mind, but all three at once?  No way!   Then there's Brooke, the ingénue-bimbo who is always losing a contact lens—and her clothes.  There's Garry, who can never quite find the word to finish a sentence; he's rather like Barmy  Fotheringay-Phipps in those P.G. Wodehouse stories.  Freddy is a little dim and keeps asking for his motivation, and any stress at all gives him a nosebleed.  Then there's old Selsdon as the Burglar; he's never there for an entrance.  It's not that Selsdon has a hearing problem:  he hears clearly;  only what he hears is never quite what the speaker has said.  And he's forever in search of a bottle.  Only Belinda seems moderately sane and competent, but she's so outnumbered! 

Altogether they're driving Lloyd, the director, and Poppy, the stage-manager out of their minds.

And poor Tim, assistant stage manager, is asleep on his feet after building the set all night.  But he's also an understudy and he just may have to go on.

Add to all this two romantic triangles, fiery jealousy, and a whole lot of sardines and you get an evening of merry madness.

Frayn gives us three different perspectives of these ill-fated players:  on-stage before opening night, backstage in mid-tour, and on-stage again at their final performance.  Yes, the entire set just rotates around.  In each scene the on-stage accidents proliferate and the back-stage emotional conflicts intensify.  In a houseful of characters trying not to be seen by each other there's a growing barrage of door-slamming exits.  Stunt director Brian Peters has choreographed some quite dazzling business—almost juggling—as a whiskey bottle or a cactus or, of course, plates of sardines are swiftly, deftly snatched back and forth among the actors.  Once a fire-axe flits from hand to hand to hand in terrifying precision.  Once a telephone flies all 'round the stage.

And, like a froth of meringue on this comic chiffon pie, a very pretty girl runs about the stage for most of the evening in her scanties.  Ruth Pferdehirt plays Brooke, the bimbo; when she trots down those long stairs or gives little jumps of excitement she shows how deeply she understands the delightful art of the jiggle.  She's a sweetie.

The whole cast is very strong.  Dale Hodges, as Dotty, bears her flabbergasting frustrations with wit.  John Scherer gives Garry the appropriate frenzied alarm.  Andy Prosky makes Freddy a gentle, confused dear.  Victoria Adams-Zischke, as Belinda, is valiant in her struggle to salvage their wreck of a production.  Rebeca Miller as Poppy and Kevin Sebastian as Tim tug at our hearts in their frantic efforts to hold their disintegrating show together until the final curtain.  Fletcher McTaggart plays Lloyd, the director;  he's particularly forceful and articulate.  And Joneal Joplin brings a lovely warm geniality to Selsdon, the burglar, and makes him adorably single-minded:  just where is that bottle now?

But there are minor imperfections.  Elizabeth Covey's costumes, overall, are fine (and some are funny), but, as a sexist, I must confess that I found Brooke's underwear rather modest for such an immodest young lady.  It was a little like those "foundation garments" of the fifties—which I always felt bore a hint of the "industrial".  And when Poppy's skirt is accidentally ripped off it was hardly embarrassing:  her shirt and tights would have almost passed today as proper wear for the mall.  I have no such quibble over the occasional male trousers which dropped during the night.  (Or was I just not paying such close attention?)

Opening night was not quite the perfection that later performances will be:  the pace, at least in Act One, flagged occasionally.  Some of the very funny, very complex (and very difficult) physical business seemed wonderfully planned and superbly rehearsed—rather than looking like some wild, funny thing that just happens.

But these are trifles.  I congratulate the Rep and director Edward Stern for rising to the challenge of "Noises Off".  It's an evening of great fun.  You shouldn't miss it.  It plays at the Rep through April 13.  For more information: repstl.org.

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