Noises Off at the Jungle Theater

June 8, 2012
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Garry Lejeune (Ryan Nelson) and Brooke Ashton (Summer Hagen) PHOTO CREDIT: Michal Daniel

Are you ready for a mop-your-eyes-and-try-to-catch-your-breath laugh? The Jungle Theater plans a summer run of Noises Off by Michael Frayn, which is easily the funniest farce I’ve ever seen.

I first knew about the play when I read it on a plane, laughing out loud and getting a few looks from the other passengers, but I couldn’t help myself. This production is every bit as funny as I remember it on that flight. No, it’s funnier. Nuts! Wild! Not so much a rollercoaster ride as a luge ride on an Olympic track. But this isn’t just a wacky farce. As a farce within a farce, it’s double that, and possibly the most complicated show to choreograph a playwright has ever devised. I dare you to try to keep track of everything—in real time.

The characters are found in their final dress rehearsal of a farce called Nothing On. The actors playing the characters in this play are plagued with every sort of foible—any one of which could derail a show (which happens) and drive a director to pop valium and escape the run, at least temporarily (which he does).

The director, Lloyd Dallas, (E.J. Subkoviak) has created his own tangle of intrigue in wanton dalliances with female company members. Dotty Otley (Cheryl Willis) can’t reliably put down the phone, leave the sardines and take the newspaper … or is it take the sardines, leave the paper, and  …? Well, you know, as Garry LeJeune (Ryan Nelson) says.

LeJeune is incapable of finishing a thought or a sentence. Brooke Ashton (Summer Hagen) accompanies LeJeune, a house agent, ostensibly to deliver some files to tax officials. Really, she’s looking to wriggle out of her dress and find the nearest bedroom, and so spends most of the play with nearly “nothing on.”

The owner of the house, Frederick Fellowes (Bradley Greenwald) is an accomplished tax evader, who is supposed to be in Spain. His companion, Belinda Blair (Kirby Bennett) is a busybody who manipulates the circumstantial evidence around her and sets everyone against just about everybody else.

Selsdon Mowbray (Stephen D’Ambrose) is the requisite happy drunk, prone to disappearing for periods of time, most often just before his entrances.

Neal Skoy plays Tim Allgood, the hapless theater tech; Kimberly Richardson is Poppy Norton-Taylor, the nerdy and nervous stage manager for the whole disaster.

Act I loads up on the necessary exposition to set up the rest of the jokes, but since it’s the funniest exposition  you will ever see, who cares? True to the genre, the characters are decidedly over-the-top, careening from one moment to the next in a minefield of mishaps that are just plausible enough to keep us vested in the wonderfully contrived plot.

Act II finds us backstage (accomplished with a two-level revolve, designed by director Joel Sass) as Nothing On is about to begin, and as it lurches beyond curtain rise. (This is played facing backstage and glimpsed by us intermittently as doors open for entrances. No matter. The real drama is behind the scenes.

This act is something like watching amazing acts in a circus. That they can perform these feats at all makes you want to clap your hands with glee and buy a cotton candy. Lots of bumbling clowns, an exasperated ringmaster and plenty of exploding emotions fueled by an absurd number of timing accidents.

The pratfalls, the pants around the ankles, the foot in the pail, for heaven’s sake! (Who ever does that one anymore?) Slamming doors, stuck doors, knob-less doors. This set only appeared to be rickity. It’s complicated enough to get a set functioning properly. This set has to disfunction properly and hold up against an onslaught of boisterous business.

In Act III the play, Nothing On, has disintegrated into an absolute train wreck. Given the direction the production was going, there was no possible alternative, but I would hardly call it predictable. You can no more predict this full-act ending than you could predict what a roomful of unsupervised toddlers might do.

Physical comedy is not easy, but it has to look easy or it’s just not funny. Sass has orchestrated an amazing, wonderful “mess” of a show, and assembled a cast who showed up with their own bags of tricks, including impressive skills in clowning and dance. It’s such an ensemble show, and they were all so perfectly cast, that I don’t find it necessary to single anyone out. Terrific performances—without exception.

It runs through August 5. Let’s hope the cast survives!

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