Theater Review

“Noises Off” Is Worth the Noise

By Ellen Booraem
Special to The Ellsworth American

BANGOR — What kind of person guffaws when an actor’s pants fall down?

Well, there was a whole theater full of them in Bangor Saturday night, each as surprised as his neighbor.

  

If You Go

  
What: Penobscot Theatre Company production of “Noises Off”
When: Through Sunday, May 1.
Where: Bangor Opera House
Tickets: $24.
Info: 942-3333 or penobscottheatre.org 

The   is at the   Tickets/information: .


From left: Adam Kuykendall, Robert Libbey (as director Lloyd Dallas) and A.J. Mooney, backstage during a show that “must go on” in Penobscot Theatre’s “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn. This perfect farce plays at the Bangor Opera House through May 1. 

Photo by Bill Kuykendall

At the end of “Noises Off,” Mark Torres’ swan song as producing artistic director of Penobscot Theatre Company, the crowd gave Torres’s production and its talented cast a standing ovation.

Even though this was only farce.

Even though this particular farce by Michael Frayn has been making the rounds for a couple of decades.

The ovation was a downright tribute to all the dropped trousers, flying sardines and silly pratfalls that this cast somehow turned into Cirque du Soleil rather than Benny Hill.

“Noises Off” is a theatrical term for sounds coming from offstage. In this case, the “noises” are a troupe of actors’ backstage lives being kept back there, just barely. Or not.

This is a play about a play, a traditional, door-slamming farce that shows us the humiliating collapse of a traditional, door-slamming farce.

Frayn gives us Otstar Productions, a bunch of second-rate British actors hoping to make money with a national tour of a farce called “Nothing On.” Its star and chief investor, Dotty Otley, is famed as “the lollipop lady” in “On the Zebras,” a television program that also has spawned several other Otstar actors.

We know about “On the Zebras” only because there’s a complete playbill for “Nothing On” enclosed in your real playbill. It’s hysterical reading, so try to arrive early enough to absorb some of it before the curtain goes up.

In Act One of “Noises Off,” the actors and their director are in a frenzied dress-and-technical rehearsal hours before opening night. Act Two catches up with them mid-tour, with the set turned around so we can see the angry and lovelorn actors half-killing each other backstage while the show goes on, more or less, out front.

We’re back out front ourselves for Act Three, when all hell breaks loose on the last night of the tour.

One reason “Noises Off” wears so well is that it’s such a diabolically clever idea for a play. 

Precision is everything in farce: The door must slam behind Character A exactly one second before Character B explodes onto the stage without seeing him.

When the characters’ chaotic lives allow that precision to fail in “Nothing On,” the meringue-like plot crumbles. Getting to see that happen makes us admire the achievements of the “Noises Off” cast even more.

There’s much to admire. Torres and cast have managed to create two sets of characters (one for each farce) while getting the stunt-timing down cold. On Saturday night, the audience interrupted Act Two to applaud a particularly deft bit of axe-handling.

The cast is a mix of familiar faces and newcomers, all excellent.

PTC regulars Kae Cooney, Mark S. Cartier, Robert Libbey and Adam Kuykendall offer intelligently developed characters and nuanced comedy. Cooney’s manic laughter in the last act, when her character is trying to make up a new plot right out there in front of the audience, is an actor’s nightmare put to music.

Libbey and Kuykendall anchor every scene they’re in.  Cartier is, as usual, perfect as an actor who can quibble a rehearsal into a standstill and then waste some more time apologizing for it.

New to the PTC stage is A.J. Mooney, who has been starring in Ten Bucks Theatre Company productions.

She gives a solid and funny performance as Dotty Otley. Kelly Tuohy, a welcome newcomer “from away,” is suitably dotty herself as the troupe ingénue. 

John Greenman and Jenny Bragdon, who began performing with PTC this year, return in well-constructed supporting roles. Khalan Bridges, a senior at Brewer High School, shows promise as the put-upon stage manager.

Torres calls this play “a love letter to the theatre.” And he’s right — under the silliness, there’s a compelling subplot that comes through every time one of the characters shakes off his backstage distress, straightens his shoulders, grabs a plate of sardines and goes on.

This production conveys that subplot beautifully. And then the pants fall down.

The Penobscot Theatre Company production of “Noises Off” is at the Bangor Opera House through Sunday, May 1. Tickets/information: 942-3333 or penobscottheatre.org.

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