It was a good weekend for theatre in Charleston, for this reviewer anyway. Two great productions in two nights leave one feeling quite satisfactorily cultured. Hot on the heels of PURE's Lonesome West, Charleston Stage's Noises Off, came as a succulent nugget of comedy that had the audience literally bending over with laughter at Saturday night's performance.
Michael Frayn's 1982 comedy is a farce about a farce. A motley group of second-rate actors are struggling to mount a touring production of a British farce called Nothing On, and director Lloyd Fellowes is finding the process disastrous. Actors Dotty and Garry are romantically involved, Frederick has nosebleeds at the merest hint of violence, and Brooke is so vacuous she can't keep track of anything that's going on, let alone her contact lenses — all of which yields some ripe setups for the classic farce recipe: comedy, confusion, and lots of slamming doors. Noises Off is a peek into what goes on in the theatre world: the romantic hookups and arguments, the onstage problems an offstage romance can cause, the ridiculous demands on the technical crew, warring egos, and more. Productions of Noises Off aren't as common as they might be, since the entire set must rotate 180 degrees to give audiences a look at the backstage and wings of the fictional set (the Footlight Players produced it here in an excellent 1999 production).
JC Conway is fantastically unbridled and charming as Garry, the fed-up lover who finally loses it after too many fights with Dotty. Garry's syntactical inability to fully express himself manifests in hilariously violent jealousy in the second half.
For anyone who's seen the 1992 film version of this play, Susie Hallatt takes on the role that Carol Burnett shined in (Dotty), and Conway has the role that John Ritter owned. In Charleston Stage's version, actors Victor Clark (Lloyd), Chris Edwards (Frederick), Jenny Ploughman (Poppy), Andrea McGinn (Brooke), Melonea Locklair (Belinda), Michael Hamburg (Selsdon), and Jason Huges (Tim) all do fantastic jobs with their roles. They're funny, committed, and energetic.
Director Marybeth Clark keeps Noises Off's pace brisk, and at times breakneck. It's exhausting to watch this play and keep up with it; the timing is absolutely critical — one misstep, or one second's deviation from the precise timing, and everything would crumble. Clark has her actors whipped into perfection with accurate, carefully choreographed blocking, which always appears natural and confident. A minor exception is a bizarre argument between Poppy and Brooke, in which they drop their voices from shouting to inaudible whispers so the audience can hear what the characters right next to them are saying. It's one of two scenes in the play that doesn't fit (the other being an odd tableau at the end, which looks more like a publicity photo than a scene from the play).
Stefanie Christensen's massive revolving set and Michael Christensen's plethora of props are crucial to the play and have great character here. We first see the "stage" of the set for Nothing On. Later, we see the back of it and what goes on behind those flats during a performance. In a series of dizzying shenanigans, the props become weapons, a bottle of Jack Daniels becomes the object of a desperate game of keep-away from the always-soused Selsdon, and Lloyd tries to juggle a temperamental Brooke. Clark has directed the long, intricate, mostly pantomime sequence (involving amazing prop handling) beautifully and flawlessly.
Noises Off is good-hearted, ridiculous fun. Charleston Stage is obviously having a ball with this production, and the audience does, too. The laughs from this slapstick are plentiful — when you have a chance to laugh like this, you shouldn't pass it up.