The Arts
June 20-26, 2007

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'Noises Off'

Let's put on a play: The cast of 'Noises Off' gets ready to perform 'Nothing on.'

Farce Time

Michael Frayn's 'Noises Off' clicks at Palo Alto Players

By Marianne Messina

THE Palo Alto Players' production of Noises Off is rife with glitches and hiccups—which is to say, it's a stellar production of British playwright Michael Frayn's backstage theater comedy for eight doors and a cast. In Act 1, a story about assignations and mix-ups in the many-doored mansion turns out to be a dress rehearsal (or technical rehearsal; they can't decide) for the play-within-a-play, Nothing On. By Act 2, we're watching the action backstage while the actors "onstage" can be glimpsed and heard through a scrim in a window. Hushed in backstage pantomime, the company's love entanglements unfold between entrances and exits—jealous rages, prima donna stunting, misplaced props, severed door handles. It doesn't bode well for the Nothing On tour.

And sure enough, in real Act 3, as audience-within-audience, we witness the degenerated version of Nothing On. Real-life director Jeanie Forte—as opposed to Nothing On director Lloyd Dallas (Dan Kapler)—has directed a swift, tight gem with an amazing cast and endless creativity in the details. Forte takes full advantage of the fact that there is no intermission between Acts 2 and 3 to merge us with the fictional Nothing On audience as props get dropped, set pieces get stuck and the curtain appears to have a mind of its own. At the opening-night show, an empty stage could spur the audience to laughter, a sure sign of powerful comedic momentum. One comedic "still life" that did this took only a bare apron and a spotlight shining on the lone wine bottle, "star" of many elaborate hand-offs as the fictional cast tried to keep it away from alcoholic actor Selsdon Mowbray (Richard Titus).

Frayn's quarter-century-old play is known to deliver up the laughs according to a company's ability to handle its daunting technical challenges and intricate choreography over four staircases and ubiquitous doors. In one of many perfectly executed "dances," Dallas tries to get a clandestine bouquet of roses to his lover Brooke so as to placate her into going onstage. A sequence of mistaken deliveries and bouquet-snatching relays reduces the roses to white flowers to one flower to, finally, a cactus.

Still, Forte's production goes beyond technical feats, for bursts of surprise and characters you can laugh with as well as at. Though certainly Frayn's play parodies that London theater tradition of saucy parlor comedies with interminable runs, it's also in the spirit of British TV sitcoms that rely not so much on caricature as on zany characters thrown together in combustible combination. Only the sharpest of acting instincts can pull off this distinction, and Forte has assembled all the right people.

As Belinda Blair, a kind of straight woman who holds the fictional cast together, Kristen K. Lo's "just another day at the circus" diligence keeps us rooting for the cast of misfits amid the laughter. As her handsome but not-so-bright leading man Freddy, Graham Hill downplays the himbo affect just enough to make Freddy's constant apologies seem rooted in painful empathy. And Bevin Bell-Hill does wonders with sexy Brooke Ashton who plays Vicki with Gilbert & Sullivan poses. Accented by Mary H. Craven's lingerie, Bell-Hill milks that touch of baby doll (the fluttery hand movements!) to squeeze surprises from the normally two-dimensional mindless vamp role. When things go wrong, it's not that this Brooke is too ignorant to notice. She willfully soldiers on, determined to have her moment, damn it.

Likewise Titus plays the tipsy Selsdon as an affable old pro, very comfortable (perhaps too comfortable) on a stage. Kapler makes a dashing director Dallas, for whom ironic frustration has become a theatrical pose. As confusing as it may sound, Noises Off is too funny in concept for plot to matter much, though at times in Forte's tightly packed Act 2 there's simply more going on than the eye and ear can follow. The proof that this production pulled off heroic acts of timing and choreography was in the riotous crowd on opening night. Even having seen this play fairly recently myself, I spent the whole second half in full-throttle lol mode—a show hasn't taken me there in a good while.

Noises Off, presented by the Palo Alto Players, plays Wednesday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm through July 1 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $26/$30. (640.329.0891)

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