Timing and blocking are important to almost any play but with Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” they are absolutely essential. Thankfully, director Trent Cox handles both with an expert touch in St. George Musical Theater’s current production of the play.
In the program’s director’s notes, Cox calls “Noises Off” both a “monster” and a “living jigsaw puzzle.” He’s right on both accounts. This farcical comedy is difficult to pull off with professional actors and a full stage. Cox was working in a community theater setting and an extremely small space for a play of this type. Luckily the talented cast rose to the occasion because a director’s visions for timing and blocking only go as far as the cast is able to take them.
“Noises Off” is all about doors and sardines. You’ll hear the cast of the play within a play mention as much a number of times during the course of the production. While the sardines comprise primarily a comedic prop, the set’s eight doors are absolutely essential and moving the actors through them at the precise moments for both storytelling and comedy is mandatory.
Typically, these eight doors are spread out across a lengthy, two-story set. That’s how the play was produced on normal stages at the Neil Simon Festival and Utah Shakespeare Festival, both in Cedar City. St. George Musical Theater’s location in the historic St. George Opera House does not provide that luxury. The Opera House has the height (barely) for a two-story set, but it’s set up for theater-in-the-round-style performances so there is not much space at all.
It’s impossible to perform “Noises Off” in the round, so SGMT has reverted somewhat to the Opera House’s former setup with the set sitting toward the east end of the theater. It’s still somewhat in the center of the Opera House, so there is seating on three sides and a few rows added on the floor, facing east.
The set itself is a reason to see “Noises Off.” SGMT executive director Bruce Bennett, who produced this show, says they have called it “the miracle on Main Street.” Set designer Jim Blackford, along with builders John Scherbarth, Dale McElroy and Sam Zitting, managed to fit all eight doors onto the narrow set, which must be turned backwards for the play’s second act, and then turned once again for the third and final act.
Just watching the staff and crew move the set between acts is worth the price of admission. It’s especially entertaining between the first two acts as the “Sunrise” fanfare from Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” (famous for its inclusion in the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey”) plays during the complicated process, that includes dodging stage lighting on the ceiling. Russ Saxton also painted the lovely set and Ginger Nelson (who also plays Poppy in the play) dressed the set and was the properties manager responsible for creating or obtaining all the essential props. Bravo to all!
Plot-wise, there’s not much that is necessary to know. “Noises Off” tells the story of a cast rehearsing a farcical play (first act), performing it (second act; but with a backstage view) and performing it again (third act; back to a normal staging). With each act, the cast’s personal squabbles with each other increasingly deteriorate the quality of the production as they struggle just to avoid complete disaster.
This is where the timing and blocking are so necessary. “Blocking” refers to the placement of the actors on the stage and how they move around it and in conjunction with one another. There are times when all nine of them are flying in and out of doors and across the stage. It’s a comic ballet full of pratfalls and Cox masterfully directs them through all of it.
Timing is always important to any comedy but especially with this particular farce. Not only do the actors have to enter and exit the doors are precise times, they have hit their lines at just the right moment to adequately convey the humor. Overall the cast excels at this, though Kelly Olsen, who plays the role of Frederick (playing the role of Philip) was especially spot-on.
Heidi Lee probably delivers the most laughs throughout as she expertly inhabits the role of Brooke (playing Vicki). Brooke’s ditziness is not only portrayed through Lee’s words but even her subtle facial expressions. She owns the third act as Brooke intrepidly charges forward with her lines, oblivious to the chaos swirling around her.
Although David Love’s role as Selsdon (playing the burglar) is smaller than some of the others, he often steals the scene when he’s on stage, becoming the most endearing member of the cast.
Katherine Wood does a stand-up job as Belinda (playing Flavia), who is basically the straight-woman character in the midst of all the craziness. This role is often overlooked in any production of “Noises Off” because it’s not as maniacal as the rest but it’s essential to the plays success and Wood solidly performs it.
Yet it’s Barb Christensen as Dotty (playing Mrs. Clackett) that stands out most. She combines the best of each aspect: excellent comic timing, strong accent performance and hilarious physical humor, all wrapped up in an endearing character. Christensen owns this show.
There are some weak points in the production. Many of the actors seem to struggle with their English accents. While their main characters speak with an American accents, the characters they are playing in the play within a play are British and some of the cast members go in and out of the accent within the same sentence.
And while it is a farce, a few of the male characters also overdo it with the exaggerated acting, whether it’s in facial expressions, gestures, vocalizations or displays of emotion. A little finesse in these areas could go a long way.
Still, it’s quite an entertaining production with plenty of laughs and surprisingly crisp timing.
St. George Musical Theater presents “Noises Off” through Nov. 4 at the St. George Opera House, 212 N. Main St., St. George. Tickets are $17-21. Visit sgmt.org or call 866-967-8167.