Monday, March 2, 2009

Carte Blanche's NOISES OFF

By Russ Bickerstaff
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With at least three solidly entertaining shows staged since late last year, a new opening at Carte Blanche Studios is quickly becoming something to look forward to every time. Its latest production—a staging of British playwright Michael Frayn’s frenetic physical comedy Noises Off, opened last week. An energetic performance even on matinee, Carte Blanche’s Noises Off is a great deal of fun to watch, even during the scene changes during intermissions between each act.

For the uninitiated, Noises Off is a double-layered comedy in which actors play actors playing characters onstage. The first act shows the action onstage during a dress rehearsal for a catastrophically bad production of an awful sex comedy called Nothing On. The second act moves the action backstage during a performance of the comedy as things fall apart. The final act brings things back to the stage in a performance of the same scene near the end of the show’s ten-week run as things have all more or less fallen apart.

The design of the production feels very tightly constructed right down to the beautifully-designed tickets and programs, which features cast bios written entirely in sets of three haikus each. We get a brief glimpse into the American actors playing the British actors in the bios and during scene changes as well, as many of the actors are involved in the process of flipping the set for a backstage view between act one and act two and then back to the standard view again between act two and act three. People rush about between acts whispering things to each other with standard US accents as we see them dealing with the monumental task of moving the entire set.

With so many actors so visible in a production in such a small space, individual performances are made unique by glimpses of personality of the actual actors between the scenes. I sat in the front row for a matinee, which really gave the feeling of being immersed in the cast. While perusing the bio haikus before the show, I casually glanced over to the heavy, black curtain that forms the left wall of the theatre space to see a pair of high-heeled shoes pointed nearly directly at me from beneath the curtain. Looking up, I saw an eye peering out at the audience from a break in the curtain. Later, amidst the flurry of activity between acts, Anna Lewein could be seen picking up rubbery stage sardines and sweeping dust off the floor of the stage. When asked what she was clearing away, I could’ve sworn she’d said, “Lucky Charms,” which would make sense, as a box of it was featured in a rather violent flurry of action during the performance. There’s a lot going on between acts It can be a lot of fun to watch for those brief moments when the play behind the play within the play are clearly visible.

The play itself is remarkably well executed with very high energy. Frayn’s script is a very evenly balanced one with nearly everyone in the ensemble having the same level of prominence onstage. The Carte Blanche production features a young cast well-suited to the highly physical end of the comedy that is also quite adept at bringing across some of the intricate subtlety that Frayn had populated the script with. Pointing out individual performances here would take a great deal of space, as there are 9 actors here all sharing more or less equal footing, but here are a few highlights-- 

--Michael Keiley carries a droll weariness about him in the role of Lloyd-the show’s director. His comic delivery is brilliant in places. The palpably comic exhaustion in his performance serves as something of a centerpiece for the production. Due to being given some of the best lines in the play by Mr. Frayn, Kelley’s performance is one of the funnest to watch.

--Katrina Greguska has an irrepressibly cheerful upper-class sort of comportment about her in the role of Belinda Blair, an actress who is evidently playing a role not all that different from her own personality.
  
--Ed Barczynski plays a senile, old actor far older than he is. The facial appliances meant to make him look old are a bit distracting from the front row, but they are effective. We get the overall impression of an old actor who seems remarkably limber for his age.

--Nicole Gorski also plays an actress much older then she is—middle-aged Dotty Otley. The frustration that we sense from her concerning a prop plate of sardines at the beginning ft he act. Is matched by her exhaustion in the final act.

--Clayton Hamburg, who bears a striking resemblance to Tom Cruise in the wig he wears through much of the production, plays a working actor who gets mixed-up in backstage drama. The stuttering the character is usually saddled with is absent from this production. It is not missed. Hamburg is particularly impressive when the comedy gets physical. There’s a clever, brilliantly-rendered moment between him, several other actors and a plastic ax somewhere in the second scene. 

--Liz Whitford plays an intellectually distant actress who seems comically incapable of improvisation as things fall apart. Whitford renders a role which might normally come across as a paper-thin ditzy stereotype with enough detail to make her seem intelligent and respectably flaky. She also has the distinction of making it through much of the performance in tasteful lingerie.

--Paul Terkel has one of the faintest British accents in the production, but this is far more appreciated than an overly-rendered fake one would’ve sounded. In the role of the faint-hearted actor Frederick Fellows who suffer from frequent nosebleeds. Any absence of accent here is made-up for in a believably comic performance of a man who goes faint from physical exertion. This could’ve appeared quite flat in a lesser performance. 

--Possibly the youngest actress in the show, Anna Lewein is a welcome addition to the local stage. Here he plays Assistant Stage Manager Poppy Norton-Taylor. This being the first time I’ve seen her in anything, I kept forgetting she was an actress. She carried the stresses and mannerisms of a stage manager so convincingly it was easy to forget she was playing a role up there amist the dual layers of a small stage.

--Adam Zastrow rounded out the cast as Stage Manager Tim Allgood. He’s at his best bringing in little bits of physical improvisation that add to the comedy. They’re subtle enough that they don’t overcome the production while being apparent enough to add one more bit of detail to a thoroughly satisfying production.

And having gotten this far in the review, it occurs to me that I’ve gone on a little longer than I normally do, even in an online review. Thinking back on it now, I realize that this is probably one of the most entertaining productions I’ve seen this season. Carte Blanche’s Jimmy Dragolovich tells me Friday and Saturday nights were nearly sold-out. The Sunday matinee was pretty packed as well . . . interested parties should take advantage of available seats for next weekend when the show closes.

Carte Blanche’s Noises Off runs through March 8th at its 80-seat studio theatre on 1024 South 5th Street.

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