At the Windy City Playhouse
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“Noises Off” may be the funniest play written in the English language in the last 40 years. You certainly won’t get an argument from its opening night audience at the Windy City Playhouse. I can’t remember when I’ve heard so much sustained laughter in a theater for an entire evening.
“Noises Off” is a farce, which means lots of dithering about by a cluster of frantic cartoonish characters. The pace is relentless as confusions mount with characters dash in and out of doors and windows, just missing embarrassing confrontations by microseconds. The audience knows it’s in for a farcical experience as soon as it takes its seats. I counted seven separate doors and two sets of windows, all in place for the hysterical track meet that constitutes the play’s main action.
English writer Michael Frayn wrote “Noises Off” in the early 1980’s and it has gone through a number of revisions over the years. But at its core the play is a comedy within a comedy, offering a look at the world of the theater in provincial England in the late 20th century. The play runs for three acts, portraying the trials and tribulations on and off stage of a second rank touring troupe of actors performing a silly comedy called “Nothing On.”
The “Noises Off” setting is a country house loaded with doors and windows primed for desperate entrances and exits. The first act is the final rehearsal of “Nothing On” before the production hits its tour of the sticks. We are introduced to the seven men and women who make up the company along with the increasingly beleaguered stage manager and assistant stage manager. The second act is a repeat of act I but from the perspective of the back stage, where the performers descend into a comic cauldron of ego tripping and sexual cross purposes. Act III returns to the front stage perspective of the opening act, taking us to the final performance of the production when everything has gone to hell in a display of missed cues, slapstick violence, outraged lovers, and all around mayhem.
Farce is the most difficult form of drama to stage successfully because everything comes down to timing. The action rises to such a furious level that the audience shouldn’t have a moment to collect itself and recognize that what is happening on stage is preposterous. If the timing is off or the casting just a mite wrong the hilarity plummets into silliness and all that huffing and puffing on stage grows tiresome. Farces don’t rely on witty language, three dimensional characters, or moral profundity. The play either is funny or it isn’t. There is no middle ground. Some of my longest nights in the theater have been spent watching farces desperately trying to be uproarious and ending up just dumb because the acting or directing was just a beat off.
The Windy City revival is blessed with a spot-on cast orchestrated to comic perfection by a director who knows what makes a successful farce tick. Of course, viewers who have a low tolerance for inane behavior by ninny characters may find even a winning staging too nonsensical by half. But spectators willing to put themselves into the hands of a beautifully rendered broad comedy will thank Windy Center for 2½ hours of comic pleasure, though the accelerating uproar of the final act may occasionally push a little too hard, though in a righteous cause.
The Windy City production has come up with the felicitous idea of having the first and third acts staged in the main theater and then moving the entire audience to an alternative space to observe the second act antics from behind the scenes, often within an arm’s reach of the characters. It’s a risky concept that the cast pulls off with immaculate timing. The characters feverishly mime with growing comic heat all the first act erotic conflagrations the audience watched from the front of the house, now observed from backstage. That middle act should be preserved in a time capsule to demonstrate how an over-the-top physical farce should be done.
The artistic accolades begin with director Scott Weinstein, who has found the right rhythms for the action that rise in comical intensity. Weinstein blends his cast with inanimate props and windows and doors to create an irresistible world of comic panic, outrage, and bafflement. His ensemble consists, alphabetically, of Erica Bittner, Amy J. Carle, Will Casey, Scott Duff, Ryan McBride, Alexander Quinones, Amy Rubenstein, Mike Tepeli, and Rochelle Therrien. They all deserve standing ovations, with special praise to Bittner as the assistant stage manager, desperately trying to keep “Nothing On” afloat against all odds of logic. Bittner’s Poppy Norton-Taylor was always in character, even at the edge of the action, reacting with fear and trembling to the theatrical wreckage her character is helpless to save.
The design team consists of Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenery), Jessica Kuehnau (costumes), Mike Durst (lighting), and Brandon Reed (sound). Their combined efforts have produced a triumph of comic sight and sound to assist the characters through their increasingly precarious path to the show’s final comic apocalyptic ending.
A separate shout-out goes to production stage manager Helen Lattyak, who must supervise the placement of an inanimate menagerie of props that includes countless plates of sardines, plus flowers, cactuses, whiskey bottles, recalcitrant telephones and travel bags, a box of documents, balky doorknobs, and a lethal-looking ax. The success of this staging is a true team effort in an enterprise where even one weak link would sabotage the final result.
I admit to some trepidation entering the theater, recalling how many unhappy nights I had spent in the past watching farces huff and puff their way through much sound and fury, signifying only a misfiring attempt at creating hilarity. A few minutes into the opening night I relaxed, realizing with relief that I was in the presence of a farce that properly hit the comic mark.
“Noises Off” at the Windy City Playhouse is a hilarious revival of one of the funniest farces of the past half century, presented by a gifted cast guided by an insightful director and a group of skilled designers who make a comic world come joyously alive.
“Noises Off” runs through March 31 at the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 West Irving Park Road. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $85. Call 773 891 8985 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
The show gets a rating of
Contact: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com January 2019
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