Sunday, December 19, 2004

Play: Backstage Pass

Noises Off by Michael Frayn, directed by Richard Seyd, Seattle Rep Theatre, Dec 11, 2004-Jan 15, 2005.

A split decision on this one. I found it a whacky bit of fluff, while my Lovely Bride sniffed "Actors think theater is funnier than it really is". I think her comment is more a flashback to that one summer she, I, and a group of our friends all were dragooned into her Mother's summer stock production of Ten Little Indians (the less of which is said the better), but she's right is that we have had a bracing of comedies over the past few years about the theatre - Inspecting Carol, Beard of Avon, Light up the Sky. Of course if you banish all plays about the theater from the boards, all you have left are multi-generational family sagas, one-women shows and August Wilson.

So, Noises Off - the title an acting in-joke in itself, being a stage direction for stuff that is happening offstage, which is what the play is about. A small touring company in England is putting on the road a production of Nothing On, thunking little bedroom farce with slamming doors, props brought on and off, and sardines. The cast is thrown together and has not gelled as a working group. There is a backstage romance between the older actress and the younger actor, a double-dating director bedding both the ingenue and the assistant stage manager, and an elderly veteran actor who keeps sneaking off for a nip.

Act One is the dress rehearsal, a start-and-stop affair as lines are blown, motivation is addressed, and plates of sardines are moved about. In it the inherent harmlessness of the play-within-the-play is established. Then in Act Two, we pick up the play in the middle of the run - relationships have crashed, rivalries have developed, jealousies bloom, and the actors are caught in the conflict between acting professionalism and personal revenge. This act takes place completely backstage as the play unfolds on the other side of the set, and the characters weave their own personal lives and jealousies through the door-slamming of the farce. Finally, in the last scene we're back on the house side again as the backstage rivalries and relationships spill out onto the stage and completely sink the production.

Noises off itself is a cute gumdrop of theater, its stage business upstaging anything representing a deeper plot. The players are incredibly good, and watching them in action, particularly at the start of act 2, is watching a juggling troupe at work. And this is what is probably attractive about plays about plays - actors get to play two roles at the same time. They get to play the actor in the play, and the role in the play-within-a-play. In particular, playing a bad actor is a luscious little nugget - its a chance to embrace all the backstage stereotypes. Lori Larsen leads the squad as wacky housekeeper onstage/Grand dame ruler off, but they are all good - Clayton Corzatte as the impish alcoholic veteran, Mark Chamberlain as the imperial, two-timing director, and Bhama Roget, who plays the cringingly worst actor of the lot (not a reflection on her ability - you have to work hard to be that bad).

So, don't worry much about the plot, but go to see the ensemble function as a well-oiled machine, even though the purpose of that well-oiled machine is to simulate the theatrical equivalent as a complete nervous breakdown. Go have fun.

More later,