Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Noises Off"


Noises Off
Michael Frayn

Monique Hafen, Richard Louis James, Kimberly Richards, Craig Marker, Nanci Zoppi   
“[W]e’ve got bags, we’ve got boxes.  Plus doors.  Plus words.  You know what I mean? ... I’m just saying.  Words.  Doors.  Bags.  Boxes.  Sardines.  Us.  OK?  I’ve made my point?”

And while the actors are dealing with all those props that somehow disappear and reappear through seven doors that one-by-one continually open and slam shut (all in split-second coordination), we deal with our own laughs and more laughs until jaws ache and sides hurt.  A play within a play where actors’ roles in one play that is being rehearsed and performed mirror and accentuate their ‘real life’ quirks and bad sides as seen in the other play – both being performed on and back stage – is the proven formula for one of the best (if not the best) farces ever to hit the stage since Shakespeare. Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off is slapstick on steroids, with every trick in the book (trips, slips, slides, and tumbles) tried at least once to command a chuckle.  Noises Off is also either a director’s dream or nightmare.  As seen currently on the revolving stage of San Francisco Playhouse, this Noises Off is clearly Director Susi Damilano’s crazy, wacky dream come true!

Richard Louis James, Nanci Zoppi, Craig Marker, Patrick Lewis, Monique Hafen
It is midnight before the new day’s opening of Nothing On in the English town of Weston-super-Mare, and the final technical rehearsal is not going well – and we are still only at the beginning of Act One.  Dolly cannot remember her lines, her sardines, or where the phone goes when.  Gary cannot understand the playwright’s logic behind why he must carry a box and satchel upstairs (and refuses to move an inch until he does).  Brooke can only recite her lines and move her arms like a pre-programmed robot (but a damned pretty one); Frederick’s nose keeps bleeding; and no one knows if the old guy, Selsdon, will show up sloshed or not – or even show up.  Finally, the deep, tired voice of Lloyd the director booms from somewhere in the dark back of the theatre, “I’m starting to know what God felt like when he sat out there in the darkness creating the world ... Very pleased he’d taken his Valium.”

Somehow, but barely, the troupe does get through Act One by dawn of opening day; but a month later when we watch (as our Act Two of Noises Off) the first act of Nothing On reenacted at Ashton-under-Lyon (but from the backstage perspective), things have actually gone from bad to worse (but not yet worst ... That will be our Act Three).  Things are not so happy among our little acting family, it seems.  A lot can happen in a month -- romantic triangles, secret trysts and break-ups, plots of revenge, and of course, ol’ Selsdon finding the bottle of booze that everyone else is desperately hiding from him.  Expect many tricks and counter-tricks that involve everything from shoestrings to axes to prickly cacti – all happening backstage while the play proceeds (sort of) hidden from us, onstage.

And the closing week in Stockton-on-Tees a couple months later (our Act Three of this two-and-a-half-hour carnival ride called Noises Off) – this is the one that in watching, you can only hope that everyone in the San Francisco Playhouse acting team has plenty of medical insurance.  While we are almost rolling on the floor, they are actually slipping on sardines, falling over clutter, plunging through windows, and tripping the light fantastic down a flight of stairs. 

The Cast of "Noises Off" & "Nothing On"
This is a farce with a capital “F” that leaves no aspect of the theatre experience untouched in its joyous, full-tongue-in-cheek mimicking.  Last-minute calls to the audience that send old ladies up and down the aisles in confusion; the opening and shutting of the stage curtain that won’t; the use, disuse, and misuse of understudies; as well as what happens to lines of a play when the lines no longer fit what is really happening onstage – these and more find their way into a normal night of Nothing On.

All of the hilarity comes at us in non-stop, often breakneck speed through the timing genius and creativity of Susie Damilano and her cast, any of whom could easily have starred in the funniest of TV sitcoms of the famed 1950s.  At the top of the stellar list is Kimberly Richards as veteran actress Dotty Otley who plays the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett in Nothing On.  Her fitful frustration over ongoing forgetfulness is only topped by her temperamental tantrums backstage and righteous runs toward revenge against fellow actors that occur as the acts progress.

Patrick Russell & Monique Hafen
Another standout from beginning to end is the vacuous, vapid persona that comedian-extraordinaire Monique Hafen brings to Brooke Ashton, the actress who plays realtor Roger’s hot pick-up, Vicki, spending most of Nothing On in her scant, red, lacy undies.  Brooke remembers Ashley’s lines by silently but noticeably mouthing the lines of others leading up to hers; and once she comes to her part, every exaggerated movement and high, squeaky intonation must be done in the same way as how she memorized it – or she comes apart.  Ms. Hafen’s Brooke could be the original source of all the terrible, non-PC blonde jokes too often told at drunken parties.

Vicki/Brooke’s stage fling in Nothing On is Roger, who is Gary Lejeune in Noises Off --  both played with full, frenetic fervor by Patrick Russell who will eventually take a fall that has us all in the audience reaching to punch 911 for his emergency aid.  (But luckily our phones are turned off, being the obedient audience members we are.)  Funny also in his own brand of vacuity is Craig Marker as Frederick Fellowes in Noises Off, who has a good, ol’ boy quality, a propensity to stop action in order to ask stupid questions, and a habit of fainting every time he hears the word (shh-hh) blood. 

Greg Ayers
Nanci Zoppi is the ever-nice actress, Belinda Blair, who is often the only adult in the room -- until she finally isn’t.  Monica Ho is the stage manager Poppy who trades her initial blank, don’t-bother-me countenance in Act One to one full of news ready to burst but with no one to listen in Act Three.  Tim the all-around, Jack-of-All-Trades for the troupe gets pulled into everything no one else wants to do (fix the doors, do the payroll, go get some flowers for my girlfriend, appease the waiting audience,   Never quite on time but always delightful with his raspy, aged, Irish accent is Richard Louis James as Selsdon Mowbray, the actor who is supposed to be a near-retired robber in Nothing On but who has trouble leaving behind his whiskey bottle in Noises Off long enough to crash through the window.    Mr. James is the drunk you just want to hug. 
step into the drunk guy’s role); and Greg Ayres is near perfection in this push-me, pull-me role.

Overseeing – but not really all that successfully – this trying and temperamental troupe of thespians is the dashing, dapper Lloyd Dallas as the director who swoops in like God above with a voice vying for the next revival of The Ten Commandments.  However, this director is having his own casting problems on the side with one too many in the role as his girlfriend.  Johnny Moreno progressively and hilariously loses any sense of stage- or self-control as his problems of on-stage cast and off-stage capers mount into his own volcanic explosions.

None of the boisterous merriment of either Noises Off or Nothing On would be possible without the two-level, multi-door set designed to a ‘t’ for titillating, tickle-pink times by George Maxwell.  Much of the ongoing gags of both plays comes from the properties galore designed by Jacqueline Scott.  (Where do all those sardines come from?  I thought there was a current shortage.)  The perfectly timed sound effects so important for the plays’ jokes and jokesters have been masterfully designed and executed by Cliff Caruthers while the costumes of Abra Berman range from sheik to playgirl to petty robber and everything in between to add their own, many guffaws.  And special hats off to Migeul “Mike” Martinez whose stunt choreography direction will hopefully, miraculously see this cast as healthy the last night of the SF Playhouse run as the first.

What better way to escape the latest, often-depressing (but often just as ridiculous) headlines than to spend an evening with San Francisco Playhouse and Noises Off?  I doubt Artistic Director Bill English could have dreamed the real-life farce we are now living through when he selected this scripted one for the 2017 season; but thankfully he did and hopefully the seats will be full of butts for every, reality-escaping performance through its closing on May 13.

Rating: 5 E

Noises Off will continue through May 13, 2017 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli.

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