By Daniel Skora
“Noises Off” is a phrase used to describe those sounds that are made offstage during a theatrical play that are part of the performance and meant to be heard by the audience. It’s also the title of the hilariously funny comedy that’s currently playing at The Encore Musical Theatre. “Noises Off!” is the brainchild of playwright Michael Frayn who, while watching from the wings one of his farces being performed onstage and seeing that what was going on backstage was even funnier than the play itself, decided to write a comedy dealing with that very situation.
The play-within-a-play is called “Nothing On”, and the charade is carried so far as to even have a playbill for this fictitious show placed inside the Encore’s regular program. The title “Nothing On” comes from the time-honored tradition of British farce featuring a scattering of dropped trousers and the occasional young lady running around in her underwear. The Encore’s production has both, though not nearly risqué enough as to provoke a raid by the Dexter police.
Instead, “Noises On” is more about sardines, not surprising since the British love them almost as much as they love their Queen, and doors that open and close with rapid fire regularity. “Noises Off!” is performed in three acts. The first features the dress rehearsal of a third-rate acting troupe as they prepare for the upcoming opening of their play. Lloyd (Daniel A. Helmer) is the director frustrated by the lack of professionalism of his cast. Dotty (Wendy Katz Hiller), playing a cockney maid, is having a hard time remembering her lines (and the sardines). Garry (Derek Ridge) is a pro when following the script, but falls apart when it comes to improvising, which happens quite often with this rag-tag bunch of actors. Brooke (Tara Tomcsik-Husak) is the dizzy blonde who has trouble hanging on to both a contact lens and her dress. Frederick (Rusty Mewha) is so concerned about motivation that his acting abilities are reduced to caricature. Belinda (Julia Garlotte), the most normal of the entire bunch, becomes rather protective over Selsdon (Dale Dobson), an old pro with the habit of disappearing from the set any time he spots a bottle of alcohol lying about. Poppy (Chris Purchis), the assistant stage manager and understudy for the female roles, has a big announcement for Lloyd relating to their little love affair, if only she can get him to listen. And Tim (Keith Kalinowski) is the stage manager who takes more orders than he gives.
The dress rehearsal and the first act of this play-within-a-play end in a mess. The cast is ill-prepared and short on talent. Act two moves ahead in time to a preview performance in front of a live audience, though it’s hardly any better than the previous dress rehearsal. Now, however, the set is viewed from the perspective of being back stage. For this, the Encore’s rather large and bulky set must be turned around to be viewed from the other side. The set, designed by Jennifer Maiseloff, is a two-storied, three-sectioned affair that replicates the country house where “Nothing On” takes place. When viewed from behind, the set is revealed to be a lumber salesman’s dream, with two-by-fours forming an intricate framework of walls and staircases. It takes several stagehands and a good fifteen minutes to rotate the three-part unit. And how does Encore create a two-story interior on a stage tall enough for only about a story-and-a-half? By making both floors so short that the actors have to slouch their way through their countless entrances and exits. Act two ends with several players at odds with each other and the farce that’s taking place backstage barely distinguishable from the farce that’s going on onstage.
Act three moves further ahead in time to an actual performance of “Nothing On” and the set must again be rotated. Now the entire storyline has broken down what with rivalries degenerating to outright hostility, props being either misplaced or misused, and everyone having a go at the bottle.
“Noises off!” is a fast-paced high-energy show that may leave you weary if not totally exhausted by show’s end. The comedy, especially by the third act, is relentless. Director Tobin Hissong keeps his players moving at breakneck speed, and if the plot line gets murkier by the minute and an actor were to drop a line or two or flub a scene, no one would notice or even care.
The ensemble cast carries with them many years of acting experience and in a play where timing is of the utmost importance, theirs is uniformly exceptional. Costumes for the show are by Sharon Larkey Urick. Sound design is by Chris Goosman, with lighting by Tyler Chinn. Properties (beware the axe and the cactus) are by Anne Donevan, while Alexander Kunitz serves as stage manager.
“Noises Off!” is a laugh fest guaranteed to make you forget for a couple of hours whatever troubles your soul. The show runs through February 19th. Tickets are available by calling 1.734.268.6200 or going online at www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets. Encore Musical Theatre is located at 3126 Broad Street in the historic village of Dexter. If you’re coming west down I-96, exit at Baker Street.