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Noises Off

Written by Michael Frayn

Directed by Brian Bedford

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Starring Steve Cumyn, Seana McKenna, Sara Topham

At the Stratford Festival

Rating:***

The recent remount of Noises Off on Broadway opened a few weeks after 9/11 in a New York that needed the escape of this insanely hilarious "farce about staging a farce" from the brilliant and versatile mind of Michael Frayn.

While I wouldn't dare compare that tragic day with anything that befell this country in the past year -- SARS to blackouts, political scandals to a deeply divisive general election, traumatizing productions of classics at tourist-starved festivals to that Romeo and Juliet debacle in a Toronto park last week -- the Canada Day opening of Noises Off at Stratford served a similar purpose. It's time for some good, clean (or is it bad and dirty?) fun for our beloved Canada.

Under the unflappable direction of Brian Bedford and with a cast that mixes established stars with riveting newcomers, Noises Off may show its age in places, and its philosophical musings on the overlap between real life and classic farce can occasionally be too precious, but its funny business is still a knockout. Theatrical life doesn't need any more mythologizing but the strength of Noises Off is in inviting one and all to be part of that mythology.

So what's it all about? Well, to quote Dotty Otley (Seana McKenna): "Doors and Sardines. That's what's all about." Dotty is the former TV star who has put her life's saving into a touring production of a British bedroom farce called "Nothing On," your average zany and xenophobic romp in an English country house.

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Over the course of three acts, Frayn takes us from the final technical/dress rehearsal to a performance of a tour and a play on its final legs, literally. The master of this universe is the godlike director Lloyd Dallas (Steve Cumyn) whose voice is first heard giving stage directions from above before he wanders down to the aisles and give notes to, among others, an actor who has troubles with words and another who's "stupid" with movement. The second act, set backstage during one performance, is still one of the funniest, most dazzling achievement in the history of farce.

Describing any more of the plot is like asking a dance critic to include a movement-by-movement account of a ballet. This is a tightly choreographed dance where picking up a box or a plate of sardines has grave consequences to the composition of each scene. Opened and closed doors, lost contact lenses and pants routinely falling down are also essential ingredients. (My quibble with Bedford's direction is in making the acting in the play-within-a-play so patently over the top when it's meant to be merely bad and second-rate.)

But above all, farce, the program notes remind us of Eric Bentley's words, is the "theatre of the human body." Its cast members are not mouthpieces for authors or tools for the director, but co-creators of a universe toppling into madness. Although a diminishing law of return applies to Noises Off as a theatrical piece in general -- it can be exhausting to watch, let alone perform -- I couldn't get enough of what each cast member in this production brings to the mix.

McKenna is a revelation as Dotty and as her housekeeper character in "Nothing On." She manages to add a note of pathos to a fading actor who in all probability will lose her investment. Cumyn, landing a role his talent deserves, nails the frustration, condescension, sadistic pleasure and pain of his character with panache and wit. Barry MacGregor as the old lush Selsdon and Chick Reid as the interfering Belinda play their parts with enviable precision. Steven Sutcliffe is charming and endearing as the actor whose wife has left him a day before opening and whose aversion to violence proves too troublesome in a company intent on killing each other halfway through the tour.

I would like to single out two performances, however, that had me spellbound. As the "dumb blonde" Brook Ahston, Sarah Topham spends most of the play in her undergarments hiding in closets or coming out of doors but somehow creates a wonderful character in an exceptionally astute performance.

Most of Topham's scenes are shared with Jean-Michel LeGal, a Vancouver actor making his Stratford debut. It's not a phrase I use frequently or lightly, but a star is born. His physicality and comfort on stage (and by far the best British accent among the cast) show an actor whose theatrical journey is beginning on a powerful note. His freshness dusts off the odd cobweb that lingers around Noises Off.

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Noises Off continues at the Avon Theatre in Stratford until Oct. 30 (1-800-567-1600).

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