Controlling chaos in UM's Noises Off 

Michael Frayn's Noises Off is a play within a play in which each plate of sardines, each faulty door knob and each bottle of whiskey is crucial to the unfolding action. "Unfolding" doesn't really describe the process, though—that's too tidy a word for this play. From the audience's perspective, Noises Off looks like pure chaos, a series of accidents and misunderstandings that feels—even more than your garden-variety farce—like a toppling house of cards.

Noises Off opens with a last-minute dress rehearsal for the first act of Nothing On, a farce produced by a dysfunctional theater company and directed by a sarcastic womanizer. The second act of Noises Off is the first act of Nothing On again, only this time we watch it being performed from backstage at the Theatre Royal in Ashton-under-Lyne, where the cast's personal dramas come to a boil—mostly in wordless slapstick. The final act is Nothing On yet another month later, and this time we watch the production as audience again, as it fully implodes. At this point, we are familiar enough with the first act that it's funny when everything goes wrong.

The University of Montana production, directed by Pamyla Stiehl, is cast well in every role. In particular, Dillon Westhoff nails Gary Lejeune's maddening inarticulateness, and Ryson Sparacino plays the condescending director Lloyd Dallas in the charmingly sleazy vein of an Alan Rickman character. Veteran actor David Mills-Low deftly disappears into the oblivious, hard-drinking Selsdon. But it's Natalie Johnston's portrayal of Brooke Ashton that stands out. Ashton is a diva who is terrible at acting, but intent on sticking to the script, even as Nothing On falls apart around her. As characters miss their cues and props go missing, Brooke just keeps on going. "You can't even get the door open," she says, in dramatic exasperation, to the empty space where Gary would have been if he'd gotten there on time.

click to enlarge The School of Theatre & Dance presents Michael Frayn’s 1982 British farce Noises Off. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The School of Theatre & Dance presents Michael Frayn’s 1982 British farce Noises Off.

It's easy to overplay airheads and divas, but Johnston is convincing even when she doubles down on the stereotypes. She also commits to physical comedy in a way that not all of the cast is willing or able to do. When her contact lens pops out, she fumbles down the stairs in a hilariously exaggerated Carol Burnett way. When she runs into doors, you could swear she actually cracks her head open.

Also noteworthy is Alessia Carpoca's set, which must have been logistically challenging: It has to fully rotate for the second act, and it has to fall apart in strategic ways. Carpoca also somehow makes it look both professional and like something a second-rate theater troupe might build. In a designer's note, she described it as a "Tudor-style home that was last updated in the '90s with a Laura Ashley sense of décor." So, deliberately cheesy.

From an actor's perspective, this play is ridiculously fun. (I played Poppy in a production before it was ever so slightly updated in 2000.) Translating that fun to the audience is harder than it looks. Gags sometimes run over other gags, and the pacing gets thrown off. At a recent Sunday matinee, some of the action felt a little loose and muddied in the second act. Still, I don't know if it's possible to make every single gag land—there are so many balls in the air. Mostly, the UM cast did what mattered most in this comedic marathon: They made people laugh really hard.

Noises Off continues at the Montana Theatre in UM's PARTV Center Thu., April 27–Sat., April 29, at 7:30 PM, and Sun., April 30, at 2 PM. $20.

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