There are a lot of different things you can expect when you go to the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, but you would never expect this.
A ballet. Right on the stage of the Quadracci Powerhouse. And with "Noises Off," a farce written by Michael Frayn and directed by KJ Sanchez, the Rep has staged a show that has everything that a great ballet has, except the music.
First, you need the actors/dancers. They must know their steps. They must be able to dance/act alone and dance/act with their partners. You need wonderful soaring scenery that helps to tell the story. You need a story that will hold your interest. You need to know what it is you want out of your audience.
And, like any great ballet, you need to ask a lot of your actors/dancers, and they need to have wonderous physical strength and impeccable timing. I mean down to the last nanosecond. If you're off in a ballet, you may as well drop your partner. If you were off in this show, the jokes, one-liner and brilliant physical comedy could fall flat, as if the audience had gone deaf.
There are several things that you need for a great farce. You need doors – the more the better – and they must be able to be slammed. You need sex, both pretty overt and of the double entendre variety. You need props that go boom in the night and allow actors to fall, juggle, drop and steal. You need love affairs, triangles, quadrangles, almost any permutation of angles. You need a sense of sympathy for the fools who are caught in the maelstrom of farcical behavior and circumstance.
"Noises Off" has all of that and more. Much more.
The conceit of the play is simple: A downtrodden second or third level theater troupe is producing a play called "Nothing On." There are three distinct performances of the play, one in a final dress rehearsal, one performance seen from the back of the stage and finally one near the end of their national tour when all semblance of a play has been lost to chaos.
The story in any great farce – and this may well be one of the greatest and funniest ever written – is merely a framework around which the players conduct their hijinks. And so, let us look at each of the nine players who created such merriment.
Veteran Rep actor and director Laura Gordon plays Dotty Otley, a slightly middle-aged actress who makes one wonder whether the words of the playwright will ever actually come out of her mouth. As the housekeeper in the play, she is the stewardess of the joke about the sardines, the joke that winds through this production from start to finish. Gordon, a wonder in countless dramas, proves that she is certainly no one-trick pony. Her comedic talents are on full and glorious display.
Joe Dempsey plays Lloyd Dallas, the director. His exhausted "had my fill of all of you" style throughout the rehearsal is familiar to anyone who has ever had to work with a group of incompetents. Dempsey is also a familiar libertine, dallying with both the show's bimbo and the stage manager. His descent from frustrated theatrical boss to crazed member of this melange of misfits is an absolute wonder.
Garry Lejeune, the male romantic lead, is the place for Rep associate Gerard Neugent to let loose. There is no mugging or physical challenge that seems beyond Neugent. It’s hard to lock onto one moment for Neugent because his rapid chasing throughout the setting is so frantic that you lose your breath watching him.
Many people have remarked about the wonder of his pratfalls, including a fall from floor two to floor one. But his quiet moment when he realizes that his plate of sardines has mysteriously disappeared is priceless and draws some of the biggest laughs. And his long segment with the laces of his shoes tied together should be mandatory watching for any actor wanting to test his or her physical chops.
Kelley Faulkner plays Brooke Ashton, the cast bimbo. She’s incredibly sexy, running around in her "smalls" which is the phrase Dotty uses for underwear. She has an incredible range, from scorned playmate to coy seductress. But her continual loss of a contact lens, spawning continual searches, brings laughter that begins as a twitter and soon climbs into the raucous range.
Moving on to Aaron Christensen, who plays empty headed star Frederick Fellowes. Christensen is a rival for the king of physical comedy worn by Neugent. His empty-headedness in the early going draws sympathetic laughter. But later, when his pants fall to his ankles and his lengthy run around the set and a climb up the stairs on his knees, you could see audience members wiping tears from their eyes.
Rep veteran Deborah Staples plays the closest to a normal person in the play, an actor who is half of the couple with Christensen. She provides a moral center, if you will, early in the going. But as the weeks and months of the play run on, she begins to veer off center and into the heady, heavily bewildered air of the rest of the cast. Staples is absolutely stunning, and has some of the best and most economical sense of movement I’ve seen in any actor. Every movement has a reason in a Staples performance.
Joe Boersma plays Tim Allgood, the gofer of the play. Part stage manager and part "keep the director happy," he brings a fresh face to this collection of the aged, infirm and the unaware.
Jonathan Gillard Daly brings the besotted Seldson Mowbray to life, where his every moment of early dementia are so funny that you wait for what’s coming next, holding your breath so that you’ll be able to laugh at full force. When Daly, who plays a thief, shuffles proudly out of a water closet holding up a piece of a toilet, and soddenly shouts, "The ballcock my man, it’s the ballcock," you can hardly hear yourself think or laugh because of the roars from the audience. Daly delivers every role he plays without ever offering up disappointment.
And finally, that brings us to Sara Zientek. She is a local girl and a member of the Rep’s acting intern company. She plays the stage manager and the other lover of the director. She is playing with a real powerhouse of acting talent in this production. But she more than holds her own; she sparkles. Before our very eyes, she is growing from a talented girl into a formidable woman, fully capable of standing with the very best in the city and standing just as tall as they do.
"Noises Off" runs through Dec. 22. Information and tickets can be obtained at milwaukeerep.com.
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