BWW Review: Angels in England, or rather ACT 1's NOISES OFF
Make no mistake about it, Michael Frayn's Noises Off, is a rollicking, hilarious roller coaster ride of mirth and merriment - the quintessential British farce, replete with slamming doors, mistaken identities, sexual escapades and all the other necessary ingredients needed to create a memorable night at the theater. In the hands of director Bradley Moore and his uncommonly nimble crew of actors, it's as fun as ever, but we've come to the conclusion that perhaps we have reached critical mass in regard to Noises Off and that local theater companies might hold off on new productions of the show for, say, a decade or so.
The intervening years would allow us to approach the material as fresh and new or even to have reached the age of retirement so we don't have to sit through it again. Not that we don't like it - by far, it may be our favorite example of the international genre that succeeds because it needs no interpretation - it's only that we've seen upwards of ten productions over the years and we deserve a break and so do audiences. We suspect, however, in ten years time they'll come flocking back, eager to see a period piece filled with pratfalls, sight gags and eager actors yearning to breathe melodramatic.
Now onstage, in a pleasant and constantly moving production likely to leave you breathless, from ACT 1, Noises Off clearly fits the company's mission of presenting "classics, contemporary classics and shows that will become classics" and director Moore's crackerjack team of thespians obviously have a good time in bringing the tale of a touring company bringing a daft comedy to the hinterlands of England. The cast is filled to the brim with a collection of familiar performers, save one (Jackson Rector makes an impressive ACT 1 debut as put-upon Tim, the stage manager), and fully two-thirds of them were onstage in the previous ACT 1 production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America.
Performing at breakneck speed, the ensemble moves at an unrelenting pace to bring the story to life and, because we are so familiar with the script, they do it justice along the way, wringing every possible laugh out of the material and leaving the stage strewn with the detritus of chewed scenery and rent garments. Their energy is unparalleled, even if the consumption of massive quantities of liquor would have lubricated the process nicely.
And about that massive set, designed by Jim Manning and Cat Arnold (who also stars as the show's de facto leading lady, both onstage and off-), it's a hulking behemoth that somehow fills the intimate confines of the Darkhorse Theater and then, somehow, comes apart and changes into the backstage area for the even funnier Act Two of the farce. You may find yourself loath to leave your seat during the two 15-minute intermissions during which stage manager Dareath Johnson, her lieutenants Tamara Cecala, Mary Hankins and their crew commit to the daunting set change. So what if a door comes off its hinges, some guy in the audience (wielding an electric drill) will step up and fix it! (We suspect he was already well-acquainted with the production, seeing as how he was quietly mouthing some of the lines in the script during Act One).
Clearly, it's an incredible follow-up to Angels in America's massive, hulking and evolving set and proof that capable theater artists and designers can do anything - once they set their mind to it!
If only more attention to detail had been paid to the actual show itself, we could give an unreservedly enthusiastic rave to ACT 1's Noises Off, but unfortunately the ball, like so many sardines, seemed to have been dropped in some areas, not the least of which was the correct pronunciation of much of the Queen's English, with the actors instead relying on good ol' American phrasing to carry the day. For example: it's pronounced "Mar-bay-ah" not "Mar-bell-uh."
There's also the disquieting discovery that the newspaper being read onstage and used to cover up the plates of canned herring that figure so prominently in the script is actually The Natchez Democrat. Add to that the realization that many of the actors seem to be utilizing performance techniques from several different schools of thought and you (with "you" being the average audience member) might lose some of the subtleties Frayn has written into his superb script.
Quibbles aside, however, you're sure to have fun at Noises Off, thanks to those self-same actors and their fearless zealousness to bring the show to life, despite an unevenness that might be ascribed to opening night jitters and exhaustion wrought by hell week fatigue. Arnold gives a fine performance as leading lady Dottie Otley (and, you must wonder, how in the ever-loving hell has she managed to do all that she has done to ensure a successful production?) and it's just another jewel added to her already burgeoning resume, but Gregory Alexander commands the stage with such vigor as director Lloyd Dallas that he upends her starring position to claim it as his own. As Alexander strides about the stage in fits of pique and over-dramatic response to the pandemonium transpiring before him on the fictionalized stage, he very simply steals the show. And that, gentle readers, is something we've never seen the character pull off in the 182 productions of Noises Off that we've seen previously.
Brett Myers, as the never-able-to-complete-a-thought or -sentence Gary LeJeune, is delightfully off-kilter and amazingly focused throughout the play, while he is paired with a perfectly daffy Christina Candilora, as the sexy Inland Revenue agent who can't keep her clothes on (and as the ditzy young actress Brooke who seems to suffer the same malady). J. Robert Lindsey, in his ACT 1 debut, is terrific as Frederick Fellowes, a dim-witted leading man with a haircut Cillian Murphy would love, and Meggan Utech is delightful as his onstage wife - the two of them enact their "onstage" roles with such over-the-top (and we daresay "hammy") enthusiasm that it's hard not to focus on them.
Liz Walsh plays stage hand (and another of Lloyd's sexual/romantic conquests) with ease, while Rector is good as Tim. Finally, Phil Brady plays the drunken and hard-of-hearing Selsdon with a sense of whimsy, underscored by his onstage whistling of "Baby Elephant Walk" that's sure to make you giggle.
Moore's sound design includes, presumably, the odd compendium of tunes that fills the dead air between acts with a hit parade of songs ranging from "The Hokey Pokey" to ABBA (damn if we didn't feel like we were in the middle of watching Muriel's Wedding from time to time, which we suspect was Moore's affectionate nod to the fact he'll be directing Mamma Mia this fall, presumably featuring many of the same actors), which was, quite frankly, our favorite part of the show, except for some of the performances (we won't say whose) and watching the set change between acts.
Here, therefore, is our advice: Go see Noises Off! We have it on good authority you won't be seeing it again on a local stage for at least ten years. Or else, there will be critical hell to pay.
Noises Off. By Michael Frayn. Directed by Bradley Moore. Presented by ACT 1, at Darkhorse Theater, 4610 Charlotte Pike, Nashville. Running through May 27. For tickets, go to www.ACT1online.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including two 15-minute intermissions).
original artwork by David Arnold