Noises Off is probably one of the most well known comedic farces in recent theatre history. The show, which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best play in 1984, has been called “the funniest farce ever written.” It’s been done countless of times by universities community and professional theatres across the country...and yet...the Guthrie is just now finally producing their own version of it for the first time. I’m so glad they did. This is a show that includes non stop laughs with misunderstandings, meta moments and also amazing talent and timing. The playwright, Michael Frayn, was actually inspired to write this show when he realized what was happening backstage on one of his shows was more interesting than the actual show itself. While it is funny in nature, it really is a test of skill for performers in every aspect.
Noises Off is a play-within-a-play that captures moments of a touring theatre troupes production of a show titled Nothing On. Each act is three various performances of this play: a final dress rehearsal, the opening performance, and a performance towards the end of their exhausting run. The show itself is almost a case study of everything that goes into creating a play, for better or for worse. This includes the inner workings of a theatre behind the scenes, progressing from flubbed lines and missed cues in the dress rehearsal to mounting friction and relationships between cast members and crew.
To complete this show you have to have a magnificent set. Well one thing the Guthrie rarely ever does is skimp out on that and audiences are treated to a deliciously beautiful set, designed by Kate Sutton-Johnson. A two story victorian style house looms over the actors. It has such a presence that it almost is it’s own role within the show. Without it, you cannot do Noises Off. The doors are one of the most comical things because there are eight in total with various ins and outs. The set is brought to extreme new lengths when the audience watches it turn 180 degrees and we see the backstage version of it. The second act plays out with the audience witnessing the shenanigans that happen behind the curtain.
A scorecard for the doors (provided by the Guthrie) shows that the Front door opens 49 times, study 27 times, bathrooms 94 times, a service quarters 27 times, a linen cupboard 12 times, a master bedroom 81 times and the upstairs corridor 23 times. That leaves plenty of chances for the actors to create so many incredibly fun moments for themselves with each other and for the audience to enjoy. Sardines, also a huge part of the show, is mentioned 228 times!
“This is the only truly great contemporary farce, built like a Swiss watch. Nothing is worse than a bad production of Noises Off, but nothing is better than a really fun production of Noises Off. It’s a blast and also confronts complicated gender issues. It adds a different, more humorous aesthetic into the season’s mix of shows.”
- Joseph Haj, Artistic Director of the Guthrie
As a previous performer myself what I think truly makes this show such an incredible one is the ability that the performers must have to stay in the moment. They must be extremely focused because they are essentially playing two roles; the character and then the character playing another character. It’s very trippy and meta when you think of it. This goes one step further in the second act when the actors have to essentially perform Nothing On but with their back to the audience while we end up witnessing the backstage antics. It’s hard to explain (just another reason why I’ll continue to scream at you all to go and rush out to see this) but it’s brilliant.
Johnny Wu plays Garry Lejeune/Roger and accent alone will make you laugh along with his physicality of acting. Also one of the few actors I’ve seen who has done a lengthy scene by hopping around with his shoe laces tied. Kate Loprest plays the dim-witted Brooke Ashton/Vicki and doesn’t rely on costume gimmicks for a laugh. Her over the top portrayal of the character is great. Nathan Keepers plays Lloyd Dallas who is the director of the show within the show and embodies everything that a director wants to say when the show is going wrong. Laura Jordan plays Belinda Blair/Flavia and nails it with facial reactions for every moment. JuCoby Johnson plays the stagehand Tim Allgood who every theatre person can relate to; having to fix everything for everyone.
Kimberly Chatterjee plays Poppy Norton-Taylor, the stage manager who somehow still manages to keep her head straight despite a company of actors who drive her insane. Raye Birk his delightful as Selsdon Mowbray/Burglar. Remy Auberjonois plays Frederick Fellowes/Philip who is overall very entertaining and lively to watch. A Guthrie show wouldn’t be complete without the lively talents of Sally Wingert as Dotty Otley/Mrs. Clackett. She starts the show with a wonderful almost monologue as she tries to remember her lines, cues and blocking on the eve of the opening night.
All together they embody everything theatre should be. They work together as a group and allow everyone to shine in their own moment along with equally sharing and reveling in moments of comedic gold. The performances together with a gorgeous set are all tied together with a bow making this a brilliantly fun and uproarious production for friends and family of all ages. I guarantee you’ll leave the McGuire Proscenium Stage with a bigger smile than you walked in with. Rarely do I see a show twice, but this is certainly one that I’ll spend the money to witness again as it’s truly a treasure.
Noises Off runs at the Guthrie Theater now through December 16.
Photos by Dan Norman