By MIRA REINBERG
Western audiences have been indulging in farcical sketches since the times when the classics of tragedy were being performed in Greece although most extant manuscripts date to the Middle Ages. Undoubtedly the magnetism of farce derives from the genre’s capacity to cast an oblique look at the chain of circumstances that generate and motivate our actions for the sole and unabashed intent of peeling off the cloak of purpose, control, and design in human behavior: all that is genteel is affected and will necessarily fray at the seams. All that is real will be revealed as unmanageable chaos.
Indeed playwright Michael Frayn is quoted to have preferred watching the performance from behind the stage. Thus, in 1982, after several expansions, was born Noises Off, a theatrical web of delirious buffoonery, aborted sexual shenanigans, inarticulate and inebriated characters, and as importantly, immeasurable quantities of physical racing in all directions: up and down stairs, front- and backstage, in and out doors, as well as physical altercations between the characters themselves.
But what checks Noises Off from lining up as another exploit in the witty coordination of the farcical genre is the statement that the play forms about theatre through an absurd theatrical production. Noises Off is a three-act play about a fictional piece entitled Nothing On, of which we see three incarnations of the first act. The first (real) act consists of a dress rehearsal, the second, a matinee performance a month later, and the third stages the same performance toward the end of the fictional play’s run. The dress rehearsal unveils the ridiculous frailties, ineptitudes, and capricious sexual dalliances of the actors, stage managers, and director. Act Two brings backstage to the fore and we the audience become privy not only to the technical maneuverings sustaining the production but to the exacerbation in the characters/fictional actors’ competence to either play their roles, manage the stage or control the offstage misunderstandings and personal duels. Exhaustion and asynchrony prevail in Act Three where the inside and outside of the theatre coincide in utter non-sense.
Such a degree of instability can retain its tautness only through a seamless collaboration by the actors and the Jungle Theater has rallied a team of talented contributors under the direction of Joel Sass who turn the intimate space into a thriving theatrical universe, teeming with minute-to-minute disfunctionality and frustration, along with empathy and responsiveness.
The artistry of the play lies in the pronounced structure of a mise en abîme, a play within a play. This straightforward construction and repetition of the fictional acting allows the characters – all of them – to expose their temperament and sensibilities. The audience can build an acquaintance with characters who display genuine depth even as this very depth reveals the arbitrariness in motives for success and failure.
In a dizzying performance, the cast serves up tightly executed scenes, including the slapstick trouser-dropping, dress-misplacing antics. Cheryl Willis gives a winning performance as the good-intentioned but hard of learning actress Dotty Otley playing the housekeeper; Ryan Nelson as Garry, a real estate agent who cannot finish his sentences; Summer Hagen as Brooke, the sexy and vacuous damsel; Bradley Greenwald is the flustered Freddy playing Philip, the income-tax avoider; Kirby Bennet as Belinda playing his wife Flavia, who combines compassion with an acute ear for gossip; Stephen D’Ambrose as the aging actor Selsdon in perpetual pursuit of the bottle; E.J. Subkoviac, the show’s cynical but sympathetic director; Kimberly Richardson as the eternally incompetent and petrified assistant stage manager; Neal Skoy, the overtaxed stage manager Tim. The ensemble builds up a dynamic that increasingly blurs the line between the real and fictional play and demonstrates once again that human creativity and outrageousness are not mutually exclusive.
Noises Off by Michael Frayn. Directed by Joel Sass. At the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis, Minnesota. June 8 – August 5, 2012. Tickets at Box Office Phone: (612) 822-7063 or Box Office Email: firstname.lastname@example.org