Sardines! You won’t forget the sardines! Or the boxes. Or the bags. Or the words by the time you get finished with Noises Off at The Cumberland Theatre this summer. Directed by Matt Bannister, this zany, maniacal, and marvelous farce will have you rolling in the aisles with gut-bursting laughter from start to finish. Better than Waiting for Guffman, with twice as much hilarity as any backstage antics that cook up as they do during any theatrical engagement, Noises Off is the perfect hysterical nightcap to summertime entertainment.
With a killer set that’s striking and breathtaking, Set Designer Rhett Wolford sets the bar of expectations incredibly high with the visual masterpiece that serves as the multi-tiered, multi-doored set. Wolford constructs the meta concept of play-within-a-play with great ease on his set. When the set spins (in sync with the pacing of the play between acts and fully utilizing the characters of the stagehands Poppy and Tim to manually crank the turn-table), the reveal is stellar. The back of the set, made up to look like a true backstage area, is as impressive as the front, despite being intentionally crude and unfinished. The mechanics, aesthetics, and overall functionality leave nothing to be desired, expect perhaps for a fourth act to miraculously appear itself so that the audience can spend more time enjoying Wolford’s fine handiwork.
While Poppy may be the in-show Stage Manager, the true unsung hero of the production is Stage Manager Jennifer Grein. With a highly chaotic explosion of farce occurring on a two-tier massive set with over half a dozen doors and entrances, the demands on Grein to keep the show running smoothly are tremendous, but she does not disappoint. Falling in line with Director Matt Bannister’s vision of the show, Grein keeps his ship of a show on calm waters while the show-within-a-show dissolves around itself in maddening antics that are simply too funny for words.
Bannister approaches the comedy with a blunt edge and shifts the modus operandi of the script ever so slightly to make it perfectly pliable and suitable for his performers, simultaneously making it relatable for the audience. Choosing to the let the acting company remain American and only their ‘in-show’ characters be British, Bannister creates two distinctive characters for each actor (try keeping up with all of it on stage, it’ll boggle and baffle your mind, making the comedy of it all that much funnier) and the result is sublime. His pacing of the farce is extremely tight; this delivers a much needed burst of energy which drives the cast forward into the maelstrom of maladies that plague the players in the performance. Comedy is played for truth, physical comedy is exercised to within an inch of its believable life, there’s nothing but positive praise to be had for what Bannister is doing to Noises Off.
An extraordinary cast of nine, including Bannister who plays the Director character of Lloyd, makes the experience an exceptional one. Anyone can do theatre; this bunch tackles the farce with rigorous aplomb and slays the audience with laugh after laugh as the comedy implodes and explodes on stage, in scene, behind the scene, and all over the house all throughout the evening. Playing with one another as if they were truly an old troupe who had worked together for eons, these nine individuals deftly maneuver through all sorts of antics, building a feverish sense of comedy that starts out with little lines in the first act, burgeons into exhausting physical shtick by the second act, and his transformed into a theatrical disaster furiously flying to hell in a handbasket soaked in comedic kerosene. They’re having a good time and it shows and because of that, the audience has that much better of an experience.
Poppy (Courtney Felman) and Tim (Kirk Yutzy) may be the stagehands of the show, stage manager and scenic hand respectively, but they’re deeply steeped in the comedy and camaraderie just like the others. Felman has vivid facial expressions, which play well into the character’s quirky nature, especially in the early scenes where she’s being jerked about by the director as stage managers often are during the final dress of a show. Yutzy has a keen sense of physical comedy and while his character does not have the insane amount of stage time as some of the others, when something funny happens because of Tim, you know it because of Yutzy.
Deafly drunk or drunkenly deaf, Selsdon (Jim Wicker) is that tragic old actor that just lingers in the company a bit too long. Wicker is spot on when it comes to his character’s poorly timed entrances (though when the farce is in full swing during the back-end of the ‘in-scene’ scene, his appearances and disappearances through various doors is impeccable) and all of the irksome annoyances that accompany the company drunkard. Brooke (Katie Culligan) is a comedic rival to Selsdon, though her character is no more or less involved with him than any of the others. Culligan’s outrageous accent well-fits her character choices. Brooke is the actor who knows blocking and lines only, has no improvisational skills, and carries on as rehearsed regardless of what is happening or not happening around her and Culligan delivers to the letter this style of performance when the Brooke character is in scene, ultimately raising the comedic standards of the show to the Nth degree.
Kimberli Rowley as Belinda and Erik Alexis as Frederick are two more critical components in the primordial comedic ooze of Noises Off. While Rowley’s character spends a great deal of time trying to ever-so-politely (in true British fashion) keep Lloyd (Bannister’s director character) in touch with the sensitivities of the rest of the cast, Alexis’ Frederick is that actor who has to have motivation for every breath, sneeze, and fart that his character creates. When Alexis gets to amping up the hysteria of Frederick, the audience finds themselves guffawing unstoppably, especially when it comes to the blood. Rowley keeps a collectedly calm head about her Belinda character, especially whilst trying to salvage the remains of various scenes gone drastically wrong ‘in-scene.’
Isn’t Matt Baughman just— you know? And he’s really— you know, especially when he does that, well, you know! The utter comic shenanigans in which Baughman engages throughout the performance is uproariously hilarious. His deep seeded attention to fully exploring the character gives him a divine physical tick which smoothly covers some scripted physical shtick. Spastically over the top, particularly during the second act, Baughman’s physical style of comedy well suits the show, especially when it comes to all of the silent expressions his character makes when discovering all the farcical nonsense happening between the others in the second act. With a proper handle on comic timing and delivery, Baughman is a class act in Noises Off and makes Gary and all of the comedy that accompanies his character well worth the cost of admission.
Sardines…sardines…it’s all about the bloody sardines for poor Dotty (Julie Herber.) Filled to the brim with comic antics that are flawlessly timed, Herber’s understanding of not only Dotty as a character but as a primary function in the inner workings of the show’s nuances is spectacular. Some of Herber’s finest moments arise during the second act, where everyone in the audiences’ sightlines is forced to be <mostly> silent; Herber’s expressions— both on her face and across her entire body— are priceless. By the time she devolves into the frazzled, scattered mess that Dotty becomes in Act III, it’s simply too hysterical for proper words.
You’ll laugh. You’ll laugh so hard you’ll cry. And then you’ll laugh that you’re crying from laughing so hard. Be prepared for high-quality, professional comedy, firing in rapid succession over the course of three acts this summer at Cumberland Theatre with their ridiculous production of Noises Off.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with two intermissions