Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Milwaukee Rep, “Noises Off”

On Friday, December 20th, we went to the Powerhouse Theatre of the Milwaukee Rep to see “Noises Off,” a farce by Michael Frayn.

I’ve never actually been that great a fan of the farce form, so I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t find it as wonderfully funny as other local critics. Let me hasten to say that this is not the fault of the production: the cast and crew did an admirable job in all ways. The faults, if any, lie with the script itself.

The structure of the play is unusual. In the first act, we see the dress rehearsal of the first act of a stereotypical British farce called “Nothing On.” In the second act, we see the same act, as it is performed a month later, but our viewpoint is from backstage. The third act is the same act performed two months after that, and we are once again out front as the audience.

The play is performed by what, if it is not the world’s most dysfunctional theater company, is a strong contender for the title. Besides the unlikely incidence of mental defects in a company totaling nine people, there are two different love triangles, one of which (it is somewhat ambiguous) may have morphed into a quadrangle before play’s end.

On the one hand, I can see the play’s attraction for theatre people: it concatenates every dumb thing that happens in the theatre into one litany of disasters, and just about anyone watching can, at some point, say, “been there, done that.” (in my case, such incidents included halting a rehearsal while a lost contact lens is searched for on stage, among others--.) For me, at least, the fun palls. Georgie suggested that my dissatisfaction at seeing a performance wrecked, even in fun, may be similar to her reaction to “comic” moments in which the wedding cake is destroyed. It just raises the hackles.

The first act is the hellish rehearsal that’s run way over time. Everyone is tired, bored, and distractible, and the director (Lloyd Dallas) getting increasingly irritable as lines, entrances, and props are all dropped.

In the second act, there’s an outbreak of jealousy among the entangled lovers, which leads to an epidemic of bad behavior, childishness, and spite that threatens to sink the show that we can hear barely holding together on the other side of the set.

The third act is a paean to the classic Murphy’s Laws: 1) Anything that can go wrong, will. 2) Of any number of things that can go wrong, the one that will is the one that does the most damage. 3) Once something has gone wrong, any attempt to fix it makes it worse. That is essentially the plot of the third act, as a plate of oily sardines (supposedly a running gag in “Nothing On”) is dropped on stage and sets off a cascade of escalating disasters.

I concede that the play is tightly and sometimes cleverly written, and the cast managed its very demanding timing flawlessly. There really were fine performances by Laura Gordon as the veteran character actress slipping into senility, Joe Dempsey as the manipulative director, Gerard Nugent as the leading man, Kelley Faulkner as the ditsy ingénue, Sara Zientek as the neurotic stage manager, Aaron Christensen as the comic older man, Deborah Staples as the actress who is the company “mother’ and fix-it person, Joe Boersma as the tech crew, and Jonathan Gillard Daly as the dipsomaniacal and mostly deaf supporting actor.

There was impressive and sometimes dangerous physical comedy delivered by Nugent, Christensen, and Deborah Staples, whose frantic dashing around backstage trying to keep the show on track reminded me of Truffaldino in “The Servant of Two Masters.”

The cast members also made a good distinction between their characters when “on” and when “off” with differing accents and delivery. This was particularly well done by Mr. Christensen, who had a distinct “north country” accent as his “normal” voice, but a more typical British stage voice when “in character.”

So, it was a very interesting evening at the theatre, watching a company of actors I like masterfully present a play I didn’t care that much for. Yes, I laughed quite a bit, but winced a bit more. I guess I would just have to say that “Noises Off” was just not my “cup of tea.”

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