Doors and sardines. That’s what it’s all about.
It’s the last-minute dress rehearsal for another one of those smarmy 1980s British sex farces that rely on split-second slamming of multiple doors and precisely placed props, such as the plate of sardines that the aptly named Dotty Otley just can’t keep track of. The befuddled actress is part of a third-rate touring company of a second-rate show in which bungled lines and missed cues abound. The production is an impending train wreck. The only one who seems to care is the director, Lloyd, who berates the actors from the balcony like a Valium-popping Old Testament God.
“Noises Off,” Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce-within-a-farce, takes Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s audience on a hilarious backstage tour of the petty dramas and flailing conceits of the cast as the ill-fated production descends into bedlam.
Cooing camaraderie quickly degrades into romantic rivalries and homicidal jealousy. Lloyd, the much put-upon director, is sardonic and world-weary — though not too weary to conduct simultaneous affairs with two women from the company. Muddled Dotty’s been carrying on with the much younger Gary Lajeune, whose inarticulate inability to complete a sentence in no way deters his self-righteous pomposity.
Selsdon, the lovable, washed-up lush, misses not only most of his cues but a good portion of reality. Keeping booze out of Selsdon’s hands is a full-time project for the players.
Scantily clad Brooke was cast for her looks, not her talent. Self-absorbed and oblivious, she delivers her lines as if she just popped out of a cake at a bachelor party.
Dim, earnest Freddie spends much of the production with his crisply creased white trousers down around his ankles. Blood and violence make Freddie swoon. Which is unfortunate, because Acts II and III are awash in both.
For Act II, the two-story set swings around to reveal what goes on in between those harried, multi-door entrances and exits. It’s not pretty. But it’s hysterical. And all the more amusing for the fact that the cast’s backstage antics must be carried out in hushed silence so as not to disturb the show. The action devolves into wildly gesticulating, ax-wielding pantomime as the bickering actors wreak their revenge while still making their entrances (well, some of their entrances), and the scene starts to resemble a Rube Goldberg chain reaction contraption.
While the fictional actors flounder, the OCT actors shine. “Noises Off” is a funny, funny show with a strong cast. You’ve got to be good to be that bad.
John Stadelman infuses Lloyd’s lines with layers of sarcasm caustic enough to unclog pipes. Yes, he’s a two-gal cad, but we feel his frustration, the wasted brilliance. If only he weren’t surrounded by fools.
Deanna Ott plays saucy Brooke with a delicious, slack-jawed vacuity. But underneath is a wiry, comedic angularity that lets us know Brooke has more going for her than her body.
The role of ever-helpful, ever-meddling Belinda, with her plummy accent and hideous houndstooth suit, could easily be obscured in the mad scramble, but Leah Kolb adds a sleek steadiness that counters the chaos.
As the British tour limps to its bedraggled conclusion in Act III, it’s not just the wheels that have come off this show, but the props, the cues, any semblance of hope. Livia Genise imbues frazzled Dotty with such perplexed exhaustion that we want to sink down with her on the set’s dowdy couch. How can life go so badly?
The fictional cast, long absorbed with their own petty woes, belatedly comes to appreciate that there’s an audience out there, and they owe them something. Paul Michael Garcia steals the scene (and risks concussion) as his inarticulate Gary struggles manfully — face red, eyes bulging — to ad-lib some kind of plausible explanation for misplaced props and malfunctioning doors.
Galloway Stevens, whose broad, physical comedy is a highlight, gives us a moment that caps the show. His foppish Freddie stands stunned in the spotlight, staring out with dark-eyed intensity at the audience they’ve all so miserably failed.
“Sorry!” he finally calls out.
In the end, the motley cast finds a shabby nobility of purpose. The play is a mess, but they’ll see this mess through to its ridiculous finale. OCT’s deft production becomes not just a farce but an affectionate tribute to those who (sometimes inelegantly) tread the boards.
“Noises Off” runs through April 9. The Oregon Cabaret Theatre is located at First and Hargadine streets in Ashland. For tickets and information, call 541-488-2902 or see https://theoregoncabaret.com/.