Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
Directed by Robin Armstrong
Scenic Design – Rodney Dobbs
Lighting Design – Jeff Stover
Costume Design – Robin Armstrong
Properties Design – Jen Gilson-Gilliam
Sound Design – Rich Frohlich
Stage Manager – Lily Steckman
CAST (in order of appearance)
Lisa Fairchild – Dotty Otley
Chad Gowen Spear – Lloyd Dallas
Michael McGough – Garry Lejeune
Carine Rice – Brooke Ashton
Juliette Talley – Poppy Norton-Taylor
David H.M. Lambert – Frederick Fellowes
Jennifer Kuenzer – Belinda Blair
Lloyd Harvey – Tim Allgood
Kim Titus – Selsdon Mowbray
Reviewed Performance 6/12/2014
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
For over thirty years, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off has been playing in regional and community theatres the world over. It ranks high on the list of most-produced plays as a farcical favorite and theatre season moneymaker. Its play within a play concept is as old as the hills, but the English playwright put a bit of a twist on his version. Standing in the wings during a performance of a farce, Frayn noted that the real laughs were coming more from behind the stage than in front. Thus, his 1982 play was born, the title being a stage direction for sounds coming from offstage, of which in Noises Off, there are many.
The play, naturally, opened in London and then transferred to the West End where it ran for five years with just as many casts and won for Best Comedy. A year later it was on Broadway, garnering Tony and Drama Desk awards. Not until 2000 did the National Theatre mount a revival that ran for two years. A 2001 Broadway revival included Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher and Faith Prince. It too achieved Tonys and Drama Desk awards. It seems this play simply could not fail no matter where it was produced! The only true failure was the play’s film adaptation in 1992 with some major players – Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Julie Hagerty amongst others – but critics called it “too… theatrical a piece to translate well to the screen”, Frank Rich (who loved the play) writing it was “the worst (film) ever made” – ouch.
Frayn has rewritten Noises Off several times, the last being for the 2000 National Theatre revival at the request of the director. A lengthy three-act, each concerns a touring production company and a performance of only the first act of Nothing On, a dreadful farce that relies on scantily-clothed young women, old men doing “drop trou”, many doors (eight to be precise) in which many actors make many rapid entrances and exits, and the expected chaos that ensues. This is where Frayn comes in to liven things up. Act One is the dress rehearsal of the play which is going rather badly to the dismay of the director who is accustomed to working in a more upscale theatrical circle. Act Two is viewed from the backstage area during a matinee performance of the same first act, while Act Three again shows the first act performance of Nothing On, only this time at the end of a long, friction-filled, ten-week run. It’s the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in both the performance and the actors’ personal relationships that keep the real actors running and the audience engaged and enthralled . . . and laughing.
Having seen Noises Off before, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ production is more a condensed version, set-wise for sure, but also less broad and farcical than others. Even though the first act is a stop and start dress rehearsal, the pace was slow and lacked the urgency of an all-nighter not going very well. It was a full forty five minutes before things really started to happen and the urgency kicked in. I did fully admire Robin Armstrong’s direction and what had to be utter patience in developing the choreography in which all the actors participated once the performance really got going. It was nothing short of contemporary dance movement, and any accidental flubs in blocking or prop use were easily missed by the audience, it was that amazingly precise.
Accents were another thing. Broad English ones worked well across the board, some better than others, but none blatantly off kilter. I believe someone dropped theirs a couple of times, even beyond the one character that is supposed to. One or two angled toward Scottish, which worked equally as well, seeing that some of the characters are not performing in the English farce.
Nine actors make up all the characters in Noises Off and, playing-wise, the balance was surprisingly equal, each having great comedy moments both in the script and in their performance. So-called minor characters had just as much to do as the lead ones, making the play a true ensemble piece, thank you Michael Frayn.
I’m simply not going to confuse the issue by stating which actor played which role in Nothing On; that will be for the playgoer to find out. However, opening Noises Off is Dotty Otley, played lovingly by Lisa Fairchild. Otley is a producer for the touring company as well as playing the play’s housekeeper. Fairchild kept Dotty much like her character's name, a bit dim-witted when it comes to stage direction but also flaring up romances behind the scenes. Fairchild's constant, slightly befuddled expression set her character throughout, making any surprising, “out of character” action by Dotty all the more hilarious.
Chad Gowen Spear’s interpretation of director Lloyd Dallas was to have him on the controlled verge of either a nervous breakdown or tantrum. Spear’s vocal quality, tensed body language and slow-burn attitude was perfectly timed and nuanced. The role is an off-on-off kind and so each time he enters, the tension must be renewed, and Spear did so admirably in playing a more subdued yet equally as farcical a character.
I found it difficult to believe that both Carine Rice and Michael McGough are fairly new to the theatre scene. Both are college students, and something must be going right at their schools to produce two actors whose performances are equally in step with the more seasoned ones. Rice, in the role of Brooke Ashton, has the arduous task of running around in bra, panties and thigh-high nylons. A beautiful body she possesses, and her comedy timing was impeccable in playing someone somewhat like herself, an inexperienced actress. The difference, however, between Rice and her character is immense. She went for the slightly ditzy, high-pitched voice and playing with hair quality for Ashton, but underneath one could see the cleverness of Rice’s acting, milking each action and gesture for the most comedy. Hers is a wonderful performance of a character that could easily be dismissed and overplayed.
McGough simply blew me away with his performance as Garry Lejeune, the young actor romantically interested in Dotty and jealous of her attention to actor Freddy. His role has him quickly changing from a debonair realtor onstage to a fool-hardy, revengeful lover backstage. His physicality is astounding (ah, youth!) but it’s his rapid-fire characterizations that had me mesmerized. McGough’s accent felt good to the ear though his was the accent I believe got left behind in the opening minutes, and if I’m wrong, it’s only because all the different characters can become a tad confusing (mea culpa).
The ever-present, put-upon assistant stage manager, Poppy Norton-Taylor, was dutifully played by Juliette Talley. In one of only three parts that kept her as one character, Poppy was the epitome of the over-worked, under-appreciated backstage person who sees all, knows almost all, and believes it’s her job to do all. Talley had great moments of “sad clown” comedy. Poppy wants to be a part of the ongoing, ever-changing romances going on with the actors, and though funny in action, Talley’s longing face and disappointed voice nicely rounded the humor with pathos, a hard thing to discover and include in farce. Her character is the connection between what’s being played out front and the heightened chaos on the other side, again not an easy thing to play and Talley played Poppy’s personality to a tee.
As the actors in the farce playing the owners of the house everyone is running around in, Jennifer Kuenzer and David H.M. Lambert stereotyped the upper class English gentry with touches of their own characters’ insecurities and pomposity. Kuenzer, in both characterizations, had the demure, passive Englishwoman down pat. Never raising her voice to the decibel of the others, her character Belinda Blair was the peacekeeper backstage. Posture straight, hands held just so, Kuenzer kept Blair under control, the straight person of sorts to the play. Lambert, on the other hand, was all broad comedy and farce, trousers to the ankles, foot in bucket, that kind of thing. But when needed, he knew when to pull back slightly for better nuance between his two roles. He played actor Frederick “Freddy” Fellowes, the actor who was also slow on his mark and his cues. Lambert let Freddy’s personality bleed into the other character so that they overlapped and sometimes lost definition. And Lambert’s accent was the loosest of all, unusual for someone who has used an English accent onstage for so many years.
Two characters that were “odd men out” in more than one way, Lloyd Harvey as stage manager Tim Allgood, and Kim Titus as actor Selsdon Mowbray, played them such that they picked up several comedy gems along the way and became highlights of the performance. Allgood is an exhausted stage manager attempting to please everyone – director, actors, his assistant – by being everywhere at once. Using an Indian accent (if it’s not his own), Harvey’s quickened dialogue got lost occasionally but his intent was not. Polite and more servile, until provoked, Harvey’s character became another straight man that proved funnier in some scenes than the comedic characters. Deadpan facial expression and switching from frantic backstage to cordial for the play’s waiting “audience” only heightened the humor.
Actor Selsdon Mowbray is the actor many of us have figuratively or literally held up onstage in a play. He drinks whenever possible, comes in too early or misses his cue altogether, and Kim Titus’ portrayal of Mowbray was hysterically too close for comfort. Droll-faced, slack-jawed, and slumpy-stanced, Titus played an actor who was only there for the gig. The only time Mowbray’s face brightened like a child with a new toy was when finding a bottle hidden backstage. Titus’ comedy timing doing something as mundane as throwing a fake brick through a fake window made the audience howl, a have to see moment to fully appreciate. For an outsider character, he certainly made his performance up front and center.
The playing area, both in front and back of the fictional play, was rather shallow, making blocking a challenge not to have actors all lined up down front. Thankfully, the actors didn’t have to run as far upstairs or across the stage, but the feel of an English mansion one might want to lease or burglarize was missing. Rodney Dobbs’ tight, little set was two-leveled, with a very small sitting area of two armchairs and side table below, stairway to upper hallway above, the proverbial seven doors both upstairs and down, and a French door main entrance with side window. Walls were a golden-ochre and doors painted rustic brown, almost cartoon-like, most likely to represent the low-budget touring show. On the flipside, everything was light gray with stenciled signs denoting each entrance and the production company’s logo plastered on each flat. Dobbs’ set was well-constructed and rotated as three separate pieces to present the farce, the backstage flats, stairs and stage manager podium, and back again. Done quickly and quietly between acts, the changes were nicely done due to Dobbs’ conscientious work.
Lighting by Jeff Stover was fairly generic as he was illuminating a play that was performing a play . . . perfect! Nice touches came in Act Two when the set was reversed, showing pinkish hues to the lights on the other side as the actors “went onstage” (confused yet, it gets worse). Stover also lit the main and side aisles of the theatre space, something used frequently at CTD to broaden the playing area.
Jen Gilson-Gilliam never disappoints in her property selections and she really went all out on Noises Off. The farce calls for plate upon plate of sardines (not a spoiler) and the actors have to handle them. If they weren’t real, they certainly looked it from four rows back. Phone with very long receiver coil and line, boxes, bags, sheets, floor mat, bucket, mop, several flower bouquets, play props, backstage props - all were chosen with care. The set up and removal of props were all rapid-fire, and as seen in the play within, if misplaced or mixed up it all could come to a disastrous halt. It did in the farce but, wonderfully, not in reality.
Costuming, thankfully, stayed the same for both plays, except for an added sheet for the sheik (pun), and when Allgood was understudying other roles. Robin Armstrong took on the design task and kept clothes modern and easy for all the movement. Stagehands and burglar in black, men in suits and ties, with or without vests, women in short skirts, top or dress and heels, Ashton undergarments in black, and housekeeper in day dress, baggy sweater and sensible shoes. The director wore tweedy, leather elbow-patched jacket, slacks and short-brimmed fedora, a cross between British literary and trendy. Nothing showy, all very smart.
Rich Frohlich had a bit of an easier time with sound design than in other productions, with a telephone ring, audience laughter, breaking glass and some wacky, upbeat music for the farce’s end to Act One. Any other sounds, such as someone falling down the stairs on either side of the set, was done live.
The entire audience was laughing loudly all through Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ Noises Off. My friend told me afterward she “hadn't laughed that much at a play in a long time!” I noticed her glance over at me as I wasn’t doing the same. Many times in this play I forgot to laugh, but only because I was so intently watching the actors perform. Precision doesn’t have a very humorous or comedic ring, and not a word often used for farce, which is seen as more wild and abandon. But to do farce well, the timing, the choreography – the precision – has to be in place or else the true intent is misplaced. Commedia dell’arte is indeed an art, and though not of that style or caliber, this production has all the heart of Commedia. It’s often stated that comedy is more difficult than drama, but this ensemble makes it look effortless and the enjoyment is all ours.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
5601 Sears Street (in lower Greenville area)
Dallas, TX 75206
Runs through June 29th
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm
Ticket price for main floor seating is $40.00, $35.00 for seniors. Balcony seating is $35.00 and $30.00 for seniors. Student tickets are $10.00 with ID.
For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com or call them at 214-828-0094.