“I don’t know why the author came into this industry in the first place. I don’t know why any of us came into it.” -Lloyd Dallas, Noises Off
If you work in the performing arts for long enough, you will have this thought. It isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when. Staying in any industry long enough will surely give you your own list of good and bad experiences. Put any group of people together, and there will be some sort of drama going on- and when they aren’t your people, and it isn’t your job, it’s terribly entertaining. Television shows have been exploiting this truth for years, the example of it that’s most likely relatable to the average person being The Office. Noises Off is proof that playwright Michael Frayn had this formula figured out in 1982.
For those readers who are new to theater, Noises Off is a particularly well-written farce consisting of a play within a play in three acts that is mainly about doors (which is normal for a farce) and sardines (which is not). In Act 1, we view the rehearsal process of a small theater company the evening before their opening performance. The set has just been completed, the doors don’t work correctly, the Technical Director hasn’t slept in 48 hours or more, the cast wants to make changes to the props, and the director has absolutely had it with all of them. For many of us who still work in the industry, it hits pretty close to home. Act 2 gives us the view one month later, as we watch “fly on the wall” style from backstage, where personal drama in the cast and crew has started to affect performance quality. This is really where the show picks up physically for the actors, and the comedy really picks up for the audience. Act 3 takes place about a month after that, where we watch (again from the audience’s perspective) the descent into madness that happens when a cast and a crew are so desperately in need of an adult.
The Little Theatre of Norfolk really does have a strong showing with this farce, and it is mostly because of their strong ensemble. Director Kathy Strouse mentioned at the opening night toast that she could not see this play happening if even one person had been miscast, and she is correct. She did a fantastic job of finding a strong ensemble who so obviously support and complement each other. Although the entire ensemble is to be congratulated for their work, and there really isn’t a weak performance on the stage, there are two real standouts in this cast- Matt Downey and Catherine Gendell. Downey, playing Garry Lejeune, really owns the role of the actor who doesn’t want to quite finish his sentences, and also does a good portion of the tripping and falling, including an entire flight of stairs. Gendell shines as the calm, supportive cast member who tries to keep the peace and keep the show going while at the same time knowing everyone’s private business (there’s one in every show), and makes all the running around she does to accomplish that look easy, including picking up and carrying another cast member over her shoulder. In heels. She mentioned that her fitbit told her this show gets her at least 20 flights of stairs per performance. Occasionally stealing the show for me was Grant Daniel, who plays the technical director Tim Allgood, stumbling around in a sleep deprived haze. Given my past employment, I’ve been there, and Daniel #nailedit. I think I laughed the loudest when, as a bit of background business, he pulled out a sledge hammer to fix a doorknob.
Technically, the show is a little bit of a cluster, but as it is a fairly organized cluster, I assume it may have been an intentional choice. At the top of the show, for example, the music starts, the stage lights go down, the curtain goes up, and last of all the house lights go down, all very abruptly. (For the uninitiated or uncertain- typically, top of show is called in this order: house lights fade out, sound go, stage lights fade to blackout, curtain up, stage lights fade up, sound fades out. Sometimes that last cue is the sound fading “into the stage,” moving the sound that is playing from the main speakers to speakers placed on the set (for a radio or some such device). That order is precisely set up to draw the audience’s attention to the stage, and now that I’ve told you that you will never not notice it again.) When the top-of-show cues come out of order it can be very jarring. (You could tell; since the house lights were still up, our audience didn’t quite know to stop talking.) As someone who has sat through hundreds of technical rehearsals where all that didn’t go quite correctly it absolutely put me in the place of being in the 13th hour of a 10-out-of-12 technical rehearsal. (Ask any stage manager, lighting designer, or sound designer- the bigger the show, the longer it takes in the technical rehearsal to get past the curtain opening.)
The lighting works well, and kudos to Nina Martin for managing to light a huge two-story set with as few dimmers as I happen to know the theater has available to it. Jason Martins’ set itself works well in the space, and it is quite solid thanks to the work of their set crew, headed by Brian Cebrian. Sets that shake when you slam the doors are a pet peeve of mine, and Cebrian managed to construct Martins’ set so that doesn’t happen, and can be spun around to accommodate the act changes. One thing that does annoy is that the set pushes so far into the curtain while it’s being spun for the intermission act change. I have an idea how much those curtains cost, and it seems a more interesting approach might have been to open the curtain so that we could watch them change over the set, and then drop the curtain again. It didn’t bother me as much in the change from Act 2 to Act 3 as it was played for laughs (another shining moment for Daniel, actually), but I hope they have someone backstage with eyes up so they don’t rip anything!
Costumes by Meg Murray are beautiful as usual, and I would be remiss for not mentioning Props Master Jenifer Wylie – not only because of the sheer number of props she had to procure, but also because I have NO idea where she found that many fake sardines. (At least, I hope they’re fake!)
A shining light in this particular show’s technical staff is Sound Designer John Roberts. Roberts is also running the sound board for the performance, and throughout the show the action includes him multiple times. From the perfect comedic timing of intentionally late and early cues, to skipping records and broken tapes, to his muttered half curses at “malfunctioning equipment,” to the bottles he has rattling around in the booth for the last act, the sound design for Noises Off really stands out to me as the best they have had at the Little Theater of Norfolk in the past few years.
Noises Off is LTN’s strongest showing this season. Their ensemble is fantastic, their tech work is up to par (or maybe potential mistakes are just more forgivable due to the subject matter- either way, it works), and the show itself is already written to be comedic gold. I would definitely suggest that if you need a night out and away from the drama of your own job, you go see this play. Or, if you work in theater, can somehow get some time off over a weekend, and want a night where you can laugh at actors playing a parody of your job – you should come see this play too.
Noises Off runs thru April 2 at the Little Theatre of Norfolk. Fri & Sat 8:00pm, Sun 2:30pm. Tix: $18 Reg; $15 Seniors/Military/Full-time Students; $9 Youth (17 and under). Group rates available. Call (757) 627-8551 or click here to buy now. And of course, let us know in the comments if you agree that LTN #nailedit!