When the Guthrie Theatre announced the inclusion of classic farce Noises Off in its 2018 season, the artistic director Joseph Haj could not have anticipated how vital the power of laughter would be in the face of everything going on in the world today. Noises Off provides exactly that: a welcome pause from reality to explore all aspects of the world on the stage: from the rehearsals, to the backstage, to a performance gone awry.
A story told via three acts, two sides of a stunning rotating set (designed by Kate Sutton-Johnson in her sophomore production with the Guthrie), nine actors and with director Meredith McDonough (in her Guthrie debut) at its helm, the play-within-a-play is a standout.
Noises Off is the story of the trials and tribulations of producing a fictional play called Nothing On. The first act introduces the cast (both the Nothing On characters and the characters of the actors who play them) via an all-night dress rehearsal. The second act shows the same performance from the perspective of backstage, seasoned with a bit of inter-cast drama. The third concludes the story with these same scenes from Nothing On, but with the cast slowly devolving into hilarious madness.
Noises Off is a common fixture of mainstream theater and has graced Broadway stages three times in the past four decades, but this is its first run on the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage. Judging from the packed preview performance I attended, and the copious amounts of laughter bouncing off the walls throughout the performance, the play was right at home here in the Twin Cities.
The real ensemble is synced in a way contrary to the mediocre actors they portray in the play-within-a-play Nothing On. Even before having officially opened, the actors fed off of one another’s energy as if they’d been performing together for months. Each of the six actors transition seamlessly between their characters and their characters’ characters, using a variety of clever indicators to note they are switching between them.
Johnny Wu switches into a Scottish accent when he plays Roger, the character in Nothing On portrayed by the Noises Off character Gary. Kate Loprest (Brooke in Noises Off) changes her facial expressions to portray Vicki, and Sally Wingert (Dotty in Noises Off) shifts her stature to become Mrs. Clackett.
These transitions allow the audience to keep up with the rapid pace of the show. The dialogue and stage direction in each act are precise, but they resist a dull feeling of routine. During every moment in the two-and-a-half hour show, the McGuire is alive with action.
Kate Loprest stands out from the cast of nine as an especially brilliant actress. She plays Brooke, a stereotypical ingenue: she is beautiful, innocent and, at times, a bit slow. In Nothing On, Brooke plays the character Vicki. Loprest depicts that Brooke is the worst actor of the Nothing On by having her play Vicki robotically. Brooke delivers every line in the exact same way, accompanied by the exact same movements.
At one point in Nothing On, Roger is supposed to catch Vicki as she falls. During the run, Roger is nowhere to be found, but Vicki falls anyway, hitting the ground. Vicki’s character is alert and jumpy, whilst Brooke is always nodding off, ignoring what goes on around her to follow a fly or to meditate. Though the rest of the cast is highly talented, Loprest received the most laughs for her performance.
The script itself is a beast for any director to take on, as it is so reliant on the precise placement of props and cues, both in Nothing On and within the greater story of Noises Off. McDonough uses light and sound effects very sparingly so that once the curtain rises it is really up to the ensemble to make sure that all elements of the show proceed as planned. In her preparation of her nine-actor team and the slew of crew members behind the scenes, McDonough prevailed. In conquering the script, though, her choices have room for improvement in the remaining month of the play’s run.
There is especially room to grow in the second act, which takes place backstage during a run of Nothing On and is largely without dialogue. The events that take place during this fateful performance are shown with fast-paced cues for Nothing On that plays in the background. The punctuality of the actors alongside all of these cues is almost astounding. The issue lies in how much is happening onstage during this act: all nine actors are (for the most part) constantly fighting, running and throwing things, and there is rarely just one designated interaction for the audience to focus on.
If I chose to watch the left side of the stage, I would completely miss what was happening on the right. Since there is no dialogue directing my attention, I was never sure which way to turn. Because of this, I often found myself watching a funny interplay that should have been in the background and missing the movements that were actually adding to the plot. With such a play as Noises Off, a farce with little to analyze beneath the surface, these extraneous details only added confusion. Since McDonough did not set explicit focal points in the second act of the play, the audience is made to piece together the hysterics of that act all on their own.
That being said, Noises Off is well worth seeing. Watching the actors fly through the performance brings joy to the dark early stages of the oncoming Minnesota winter. Playing until Dec. 16, the play is bright, incredibly amusing and a fine example of the power of theatre: turning frowns to smiles, making an audience of all ages and backgrounds laugh and reminding us all of the good that the world has to offer. If you’re looking for an end-of-semester pick-me-up, head to the Guthrie.