Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2008

This has been a summer for farce. It started on Memorial Day weekend with The Ladies Man at Shakespeare & Company, and was punctuated with A Flea in Her Ear at the Williamstown Theatre Festival at the end of July. It is now concluding with the farce to end all farces, Noises Off, at the Cohoes Music Hall, which will have its final performance on the last day of meteorological summer.

Two out of these three productions had major problems with their sets. Because Shakespeare & Company was running three shows in rep on the Founders’ Theatre stage this summer they couldn’t have built a massive set if they wanted to and boiled the set for The Ladies Man down to its essential element – doors. But A Flea in Her Ear and Noises Off both had problems with their sets serious enough to cancel performances. Both were physically large sets, but Noises Off requires that its large set be seen from the front in Acts I & III and from the back in Act II. The only time I have seen this done successfully is when the whole set physically revolved.

Cohoes has a revolve, albeit a small one, but it is not utilized in this production, so kudos got to the stage crew, under the leadership of Production Stage Manager Kimberly Crawley, who turn the set inside out and then right side round again quite quickly in the course of two intermissions. The set may have caused the theatre to cancel the first weekend of performances, but it is not currently the problem with the production.

"That's what it's all about. Doors and sardines. Getting on -- getting off. Getting the sardines on -- getting the sardines off. That's farce. That's the theater. That's life."
- Michael Frayn, Noises Off

Noises Off is indeed all about doors and sardines, but it also possesses, like any good farce, a highly complex plot. Usually, the plot is only important to the characters in the play, but here we have a farce within a farce. Playwright Michael Frayn has developed a simple little plot for Nothing On – the atrocious comedy being presented by the hapless band of actors whose backstage antics provide the real plot that the audience needs to follow. In Act I we need to meet these actors and the characters they are playing in Noises Off and the characters their characters are playing in Nothing On and how each set relates.

We actually hear the first act of Nothing On performed three times, as Act I takes place during the final dress rehearsal in January before the show sets out on a tour of the provinces, Act II during a February matinee performance, and Act III during a performance in the final week of the tour in April. How the actors off-stage interactions affect their on-stage performance provides most of the laughs.

The problem here lies not in the set, designed by John Hofland, which is nice and sturdy, allowing actors to climb all over its two stories without anything looking precarious or flimsy, but in the casting, particularly of the young men. Tim Dugan as Garry Lejeune, Brad Heikes as Frederick Fellowes, and James Dutton as Tim Allgood, look too much alike. Frankly, when Dutton first appeared in Act II I was quite convinced that he was Dugan, and then, when Dugan also appeared, I couldn’t think who Dutton was at all until, by process of elimination, I realized he had to be Tim. That’s a problem because the majority of Act II is performed in pantomime backstage while the show is being performed onstage, and if you don’t who is who then you are confused and frustrated and not free to relax and enjoy yourself.

But I couldn’t relax and enjoy myself for another reason entirely. The chaos was two chaotic and I was constantly terrified that something really was going wrong, beyond what was supposed to go wrong. And of course I worried about the set. Just what had been wrong with the set and had it really and truly been fixed? At the press opening of “A Flea in Her Ear” the revolving bed was still acting up and everyone, including the actors on stage, held their breath at its every cue. I felt that same way even though there was (apparently) nothing mechanical to misbehave.

I think I am speaking of the difference between chaos and controlled chaos. Farce depends on controlled chaos, but the control element is key in allowing the audience to relax enough to enjoy the chaos.

On the distaff side, the casting problem lies with Kristen van Ginhoven in the leading role of Dotty Otley (I just love that name). Dotty is supposed to be at least 40-something and probably 50-something but von Ginhoven has probably not yet seen her 35th birthday. She’s just two darned young. Dorothy Loudon created the role on Broadway and Carol Burnett played it in the (rather disastrous) 1992 film version. The point is that Dotty had been a star of some note and is now reduced to playing bad sex comedies in the provinces because she’s too old for the juicier parts.

Filling those juicier parts here are Laura Volpey as Brooke Ashton, the ditsy ingénue and Kate Reynolds as Belinda Blair, the soubrette. Volpey is in nothing but her bra, panties, and a pair of thigh-high white hose for the bulk of the play and has to perform some very vigorous physical comedy while so scantily clad, which she does gamely and no doubt with the assistance of a great deal of Hollywood Fashion Tape (billed as “the stars’ secret to preventing wardrobe malfunctions”). She looks lovely, but she just misses the mark.

Reynolds, who gets to keep her clothes on, also misses convincing us that she is the kind of pseudo-sincere back-stage mother that Belinda is clearly written to be. She is particularly plagued by the Bad British Accent Syndrome that all the cast struggle with, as many of Belinda’s lines have a British cadence that sounds odd to American ears.

Brian Massman did a nice job with the difficult character of Lloyd Dallas, director of Nothing On. As I watched Massman roam the house, watching his ill-fated Act I dress rehearsal, I realized what a small space the Cohoes Music Hall is for an urban opera house. It was an odd connection between house and stage that isn’t often created.

John Noble eschews all pretense at a British accent and relies on his own fine comedic timing to make the elderly, drunken Selsdon Mowbray one of the few uncomplicated and therefore worry-free delights in this production. Kaitlin Wilcox was weak as the beleaguered stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor – a key character who has few lines and must convey her story physically.

By the middle of Act II, once the audience has caught on to who’s who on and off stage, Noises Off should be a non-stop laugh riot. On the night I attended, the audience never relaxed and connected enough to reach that point. Instead they sat, the way that fictional audience watching the Act III performance of Nothing On must have, with jaws on the floor and horror in their eyes as everything that could go wrong, did. And, as far as I could tell, nothing actually WAS going wrong on the Cohoes stage, but the cast had not sufficiently built up the illusion that what we were watching was intentional, rather than chaotic.

Costume designer Khyrn Diotte could have done a great deal more to make the young male characters easy to identify.

In some productions of Noises Off the audience is provided with a fictional playbill for Nothing On, including actor bios for the fictional actors the real actors are playing. That and more distinctive costuming and character development would have gone a long way towards making this a more enjoyable production.

Noises Off, presented by C-R Productions, runs through September 21 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances are scheduled for Thursday-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 3 p.m. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with two intermissions and is suitable for ages 10 and up. Tickets for Noises Off range from $23 to $32. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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