By Sarah Petrea Schultz
I’ve been hearing references to Noises Off, this “play within a play,” for years. Intrigued by the concept of a farce where they literally turn the set around and show you what’s going on backstage, I jumped at the opportunity to see Guthrie’s production of this comedy standard by Michael Frayn.
The audience was immediately engaged, laughing loudly at the onstage antics. The physical comedy and insular yet inclusive jokes drew people out of their polite, Minnesotan silence. Strangely, I didn’t laugh as much as I thought I would – and I’ve been racking my brain to try and figure out why. Were my expectations too high? Was my analytical mindset preventing me from being present and enjoying each moment as it came? Should I have studied the characters and the story beforehand? I suppose each of these factors affected my experience.
One aspect of the production that made it less humorous to me was the earnest portrayal of the characters. They all seemed to want their play, Nothing On, to succeed. In fact, they cared so much about the success of the tour that it almost pained me to see things go wrong. Director Meredith McDonough acknowledges the depth of the characters’ investment in the show, stating “That’s why they’re all trying so hard!” We do need to see that the cast of Nothing On struggle for excellence- otherwise nothing would drive the show. However, the actors of the make-believe theater troupe seemed too grounded. I couldn’t help thinking about what failure would mean for each of them- bankruptcy? Depression? Unwanted pregnancy? I wanted the characters to live deeper in the realm of absurdity, to seem more over-the-top and less like someone I would feel sorry for on the bus. Then again, maybe that’s the point. The truest things are often the funniest.
One character who earned all of my laughter and none of my pity was Brooke Ashton playing Vicki (played by Kate Loprest). Described as a “contact wearing ingenue,” Brooke was sunny, aloof, and endearing. Loprest played up the “dumb blonde” troupe just enough- it was hilarious without being trite or offensive. Brooke’s huge blue eyes smiled at everyone, until they twitched with contact lens issues. As Brooke playing Vicki, Loprest’s movements were sharply stylized. Her little shimmies, bounces, and thrusts were consistent throughout each run of Nothing On that we saw. This unvarying physicality contrasted hilariously with mounting chaos of the second and third acts.
Other characters had beautiful and hilarious sections as well. I particularly loved a moment when Frederick Fellowes (played by Remy Auberjonois) and Belinda Blair (played by Laura Jordan) are onstage as husband and wife Philip and Flavia. The production is falling apart around them, and you can see their desperation as they attempt to follow their blocking. Unanimously, they throw their heads back and laugh, eyes wide and frenzied. It was a great little button that captured the spirit of the show.
I would love to see this show again. The set and blocking created beautiful and fascinating visuals. With every delightful bit that I caught, I worried I was missing another. Hopefully you can catch them all!
Noises Off runs October 27 – December 16 at Guthrie Theater. Call 612.377.2224 or 1.877.44.STAGE.