Story: Director Lloyd Dallas is frantically putting his ensemble of six performers through their much-needed dress rehearsal for the Otstar Productions Ltd. presentation of Nothing On, a comedy by noted playwright Robin Housemonger. “Doors and sardines,” Dallas advises his troupe. “It’s all about doors and sardines.”
Seems straightforward enough, but this English touring company has more than its share of behind-the-scenes challenges. As leading actress and resident gossip Belinda Blair reminds everyone, Lloyd is having an affair with her young co-star, Brooke Ashton -- something Lloyd’s previous liaison, fatigued assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor, is just learning.
There’s also the busy romantic schedule of Dotty Otley with her co-stars Garry Lejeune and Frederick Fellowes, and the subsequent jealousy that creates. Veteran thespian Selsdon Mowbray has a long-time affection for the bottle, and Brooke has an annoying penchant for losing contact lenses at the most inappropriate times. All the while, Lloyd keeps stage manager Tim Allgood working at breakneck speed and without sleep for 48 hours.
What could go wrong with Otstar’s presentation of Nothing On, you ask? After stumbling through nearly three months touring the countryside at such endearing locales as Ashton-under-Lyne and Stockton-on-Trees, the more appropriate question would be, “What could go right?”
Highlights: Playwright Michael Frayn has revised his comic masterpiece several times since its first, full-length version in 1982, following a one-act prototype written in 1977 that was based on his own observations watching a production of his farce, The Two of Us, backstage in 1970. The current presentation at The Rep, a mostly hilarious and delicately timed romp, follows Frayn’s 2011 script.
If done properly, nothing comes close to the fitfully funny shenanigans of Noises Off (although Lend Me a Tenor provides competition). Under the free-wheeling direction of Edward Stern, The Rep’s version of Noises Off is a wildly wacky way to end its 2013-14 season.
Other Info: Do yourself a favor and check out the program notes for Noises Off. It’s the ‘program’ for Nothing On, complete with faux biographies and an essay ‘condensed’ from JG Stillwater’s Eros Untrousered -- Studies in the Semantics of Bedroom Farce. That should get you ready for the amusing anarchy to follow.
Stern’s comic collaborators include scenic designer James Wolk, who provides a double-faced, intricate work that showcases the ‘stage’ for the first and third scenes and a behind-the-scenes look for the middle scene. The frontal approach is an elegant, two-story English manor home replete with multiple doors, a bay window and a drapery-shrouded attic, while the latter is filled with amusing props that come into play as the cast and crew disintegrate into myriad disputes.
Peter Sargent’s lighting, Rusty Wandall’s sound (including Lloyd's stentorian, back-of-theater voice) and Elizabeth Covey’s costumes contribute to the chaos, including Covey’s amusing bandit attire for Selsdon, some incredibly garish outfits for Garry and Frederick and minimal wardrobe for the scantily clad Brooke.
Noises Off delivers abundant laughs for a discerning audience, which needs to pay close attention to the three or four escapades happening between the players at any given time. Raised eyebrows, angry fits of jealousy, bumbling and stumbling and periodic quests for revenge can all populate the stage simultaneously.
Sight gags abound as well, such as a temperamental and elevated telephone, omnipresent plates of sardines and a cactus that is placed in most unfortunate locations for Lloyd.
Of course, the soul of any farce is the speed with which it’s played in and through those myriad doors, and at this Stern’s cast excels. The wonderfully silly situations created most often move with alacrity, albeit with a couple of missteps concerning a plate of spilled sardines that seem more forced than farcical.
Dale Hodges is deadpan and droll as the worldly Dotty. Fletcher McTaggart moves Lloyd from exasperated to frustrated to frantic in three short, amusing acts. Ruth Pferdehirt is properly vapid as the optically challenged Brooke, while Rebecca Miller is effectively timid as the lovelorn and put-upon Poppy.
Andy Prosky deftly handles the nose-bleeding catastrophe known as Frederick, and John Scherer amusingly portrays the always-at-a-loss-for-words Garry. Victoria Adams-Zischke is the best of a very good bunch of comedians in the hilarious second act, moving determinedly both on and off stage to overcome gaffes by the star-crossed troupe.
Kevin Sebastian is the highlight of the first act with his earnest but zombied, sleepless-man-walking Tim. Local favorite Joneal Joplin keeps his eyes on the prize of a floating bottle of booze as the hard-of-hearing, fond-of-drinking Selsdon, wandering aimlessly and amusingly throughout the theater.
Noises Off is a wonderful tonic for whatever ails you if done effectively. Such is the case with The Rep’s side-splitting, slapstick approach in its season finale.
Play: Noises Off
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through April 13
Tickets: $20-$76; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.