At the exact moment when it seems as if not one more thing could possibly go wrong for the second-rate British touring company putting on the ill-fated sex farce “Nothing On,” its director, Lloyd, cries out in exasperation “This play is beyond a director’s hell.”
This is but one of practically countless peak moments in Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” rightfully considered the greatest farce ever written in the English language, and no doubt echoes The Barn Theatre Director Brendan Ragotzy’s sentiment putting up their utterly flawless and hysterical production of the incomparable farce within a farce that opened Tuesday. Opening night happened after six days of rehearsal while still in production with the musical “The Civil War,” and not even two hours after a several-hour afternoon power outage interrupted their final rehearsal.
And yet, no one would know it, for this resident company and brilliant cast are in masterful command regardless of what comes their way. And if anything illustrates that fact, it’s their impeccable timing, tremendous character work, and comedic genius — individually and as an ensemble — in full force throughout this lightning-quick three-act slamming-doors farce for which the belly laughs come so spontaneously and rapid-fire, audience members have to work to catch their breath and not laugh over the next clever line or otherwise miss the next stupefyingly hilarious set of surprising things happening on stage.
Sight gags including leaping up winding stairs with trousers around the ankles, shoelaces surreptitiously tied together, accidental simulated nose-to-tail sex positions, stomping on toes and slipping on stray sardines are but a handful of those silly things, and the context for which is as follows. The action of Act I opens during a wearying late-night final dress rehearsal through which the actors flounder terrifically through their blocking and their lines, and the sordid relationships among the company as well as the characters’ quirks emerge.
Act II takes place a month into the show’s run from a backstage perspective in which shenanigans driven by rivalries and heartbreaks further interrupt the work of putting on the play and largely unfold through pantomime with screwball twists at every turn. In Act III, everything comes undone, the unraveling so utterly complete, no one knows where they are in the script or otherwise, and the falling apart of their performance is matched by the disaster that has come to their personal as well as professional lives.
And yet the plot is merely the sturdy skeleton through which The Barn’s incomparable cast of nine positively shine — each of them giving a virtuoso performance in their own right while also building a beautifully responsive ensemble that practically moves as one despite its seemingly infinite moving parts.
The show begins and ends with Penelope Alex owning the stage as Dotty, the once-TV star now relegated to investing and starring in a two-bit failing farce as a maid who can’t seem to keep her props straight, particularly what turns out to be a disappearing then multiplying plate of sardines. Every raise of the eyebrow, each Cockney-inflected line is so honest and so funny, she more than earns co-star and celebrated guest artist Robert Newman’s proclamation in the cabaret after the show that “Penelope Alex is one of the great comedic actresses.”
Melissa Cotton Hunter, too, easily falls among those hard-won ranks as Brooke, the ditzy doe-eyed sex pot who’s sleeping with the director, of course, and delivers her lines with a thud while gesturing melodramatically, wearing little more than a pink lingerie set, and losing her left contact lens, forcing her into an awkward monster walk until she finds it in her eyeball. This is the sort of role in which Hunter thrives (most recently at The Barn in her Wilde Award nominated role as Lina Lamont in 2016’s Singing In The Rain) and always uniquely makes her own, this time with ingenious physical and vocal acrobatics.
Everyone else on stage shows pluck and range through excellent choices that magnify these delightful characters: Jonnie Carpathios as Dotty’s self-serving jealous lover Garry; Patrick Hunter as the insecure and somewhat simple-minded Freddie, who’s so violence-averse he gets a nose bleed at the mere threat of a slap; John Jay Espino as Selsdon, poor love, the doddering and practically deaf drunkard who can’t get his entrances or lines right; Christian Edwards as stagehand Tim, so often called on to save the day only for him to ruin it further; Andrea Arvanigian as the resident gossip who ironically mostly stays above the fray; and Samantha Rickard as the anxious and eager-to-please stage manager Poppy, yet another of the director’s unfortunate lovers.
The role of director here comes to fruition hitting all the right notes. At once explosive yet restrained, charming yet with a dark underbelly, and with both agitation and grace, guest artist and Barn favorite Robert Newman, best known for his 28-year award-winning run as Joshua on Guiding Light, is marvelous in this role. The tenuous glue that holds the madness together, except when he’s adding to it. He’s the shining star among an all-star cast.
And the comedy just wouldn’t play without what wonders they’re able to make of Sam Rudy’s props, the seven slamming doors plus a window on the two-level set by John Dobson — which we ostensibly view from both the front and the back, and the late ’70’s/early ’80s wigs from Crysta Menefee Gsellman and costumes from Taylor Burke.
What happens onstage under Brendan Ragotzy’s expert direction is a magnificently choreographed, perfectly timed, ridiculously delightful disaster so as to bring to life a magnificently imagined one without a hitch. “Noises Off” at The Barn is everything this uproarious, twisted comedy needs to be and more. It’s the only non-musical of the 2018 season, and a wonderful opportunity to see what these gifted artists can do to make you laugh your head off without song and dance. Though if a trip to The Barn without that kind of show seems unfathomable, have no fear. The bar show following the main stage performance, a fun cabaret-style revue of duets this time around, provides its own delightful three acts.
The Barn Theatre