KINGSTON — URI Theatre closes out the year with a bang – actually countless bangs, clatters, smashes, stomps, and screams - in its raucous and rousing new production of the door-slamming farce, “Noises Off.” Since its premiere in London in 1982, Michael Frayn’s acclaimed and oft-performed farce has captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Regarded as among the finest examples of contemporary farce, “Noises Off” has enjoyed three runs on Broadway, not to mention numerous regional and local productions around the country.
The comic structure of Frayn’s play – an impeccable framework built on layers of pratfalls, gags, and high jinks – gleefully transcends some of its dated British references. URI’s production refreshes the original script a bit by recasting the comedy as a hilariously ramshackle American theater troupe touring around New England with a stale British sex farce called “Nothing On”. The stark contrast between these regional actors – most of them second-rate or past-their-prime – and their struggles to make sense of the characters in their comedy contributes amply to the show’s comic payoff.
The play assembles three acts (about 40 minute each) – with an ingenious twist. While the first act focuses on the shaky cast stumbling, late into the evening, through their final dress rehearsal, the set rotates for the second act, revealing frantic backstage antics during the a performance in the middle of the run. The show’s final act transports the spectators to the final performance several months later. Fully aware of what should (and should not) be happening, the audience has been primed for the both the comic chaos of the moment, as well as the carefully placed payoffs which have been many acts in the making.
The conductor of this cacophony is guest artist Christopher J. Simpson, artistic director at Wakefield’s Contemporary Theater Company. One reason why “Noises Off” is so watchable is that much of the comedy is driven by the cast of screwball characters (one of the production’s nice touches is that the fictional actors’ tongue-in-cheek biographies appear in the lobby of the Robert E. Will Theatre). Simpson not only draws delightfully idiosyncratic individual performances out of this motley crew of stock figures, but gets the ensemble of nine performers clicking together on each of the play’s chaotic cylinders. This applies to the backstage intrigue and romantic dalliances that keep bubbling to the surface, as well as the carefully choreographed physical comedy that dominates the second act before boiling over in the production’s wild climax.
URI’s production is both a feat of wit and comic timing as well as of physical derring-do. The elaborate entrances and exits in the second act – played mostly in pantomime on the backstage set – are dizzying. And the show’s grand finale is a high-speed, high wire act for the ensemble, as the cast tries to carry on even as everything falls hilariously apart around them. Brooks Shawtraw leads the way as Garry Lejeune playing Roger Tramplemain. Shawtraw is particularly brilliant drawing the distinction between Lejeune’s own eccentricities and the British rake he is trying to portray. Shawtraw also proves a master of physical comedy, spending much of the second act hopping around with his shoes tied together and nailing a jaw-dropping and show-stopping physical gag at the end of the show to much applause. Katharine Templeton wrings the most out of many ridiculous moments as theatrical icon Dotty Otley playing the maid Mrs. Clackett, including a running gag involving sardines. Ardemis Kassabian has a lot of fun playing Vicki played by Brook Ashton, an actress trying to go legit with a knack for losing her contact lenses. Erik Schlicht adds a nice touch as the exasperated director of “Nothing On” who remains insuppressibly attached to his show (and certain cast members). This play must assemble a finely-tuned machine for the comedy to sustain itself and, but for a handful of blurry moments here and there, the ensemble delivers. The proof was in both the audience’s riotous non-stop laughter in the third act, as well as the actors’ exhausted curtain call.
Design elements firmly support the play’s action. Cameron Waitkun’s lighting design perfectly expresses the backstage versus front dynamic. Jennifer Stravakas’ costume design is whimsical and ironic, while Michael Hyde’s sound design gets into the fun with perfectly misplaced cues and effects. One of the stars of the show is scenic design by Jeffrey Modereger featuring a massive rotating two-story set with eight doors and multiple staircases. Seeing set in action – with actors afoot – is worth the price of admission alone.
One of the reasons that “Noises Off” is such a successful example of the farcical form is that it is more than just a play-within-a-play. It serves as both a classic farce, as well as an inspired homage to – and parody of – the form. This production seems to be conscious of this dual function. But most of all, URI Theatre’s show is full of surprises, showmanship, and plenty of belly-laughs for anyone willing to play along.