“Doors and sardines. Getting on – getting off. Getting the sardines on – getting sardines off. That’s farce. That’s theatre. That’s life.”
That’s the near-Nietzschean philosophy espoused by stage director Lloyd Dallas (David Storch), during an exasperating technical run/dress rehearsal for a second-rate farce called Nothing On, about to embark on a tour though third-tier markets in England.
Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce-within-a-farce, shows us Lloyd and the cast and skeletal crew of Nothing On at three different moments: The night before opening night, at the Grand Theatre, Weston-super-Mare; a month into the run, at Theatre Royal, Ashton-under-Lyne; and three months in, during a stop at the Municipal Theatre, Stockton-on-Tees.
Backstage romance turns into jealousy turns into bitter hatred along the way, as the first act of Nothing On is presented to us in performances that degrade from bad to worse to a complete catastrophe that borders on the absurd.
At the real-life Soulpepper Theatre Company, the director of this production of Noises Off is Ted Dykstra – and he certainly does get the actors and the sardines on and off with the help of a solid cast of fish-bearers such as Raquel Duffy, Christopher Morris and Brenda Robins.
Matthew Edison stands out as a farceur of the first rank – showing a fine knack for both physical and verbal comedy as an actor named Garry who is eloquent when scripted, but can only express himself in a series of “you knows” when talking or improvising.
His eventual face-first belly flop down an onstage set of stairs was beautifully done and led to spontaneous applause on opening night.
Oliver Dennis, as an ancient, alcoholic actor named Selsdon, is equally funny, simply climbing up that same set of stairs with extreme reluctance during the dress rehearsal.
And Soulpepper newcomer Myrthin Stagg also shows spectacular comic timing as a brainless actor named Brooke – who says her overrehearsed lines regardless of what is said to her and is constantly losing her contact lenses.
Less enchanting is the character of Brooke herself – the old stereotype of the dumb beautiful woman, with nothing in the play or the production to subvert it.
Oddly, the fictional farce-writer of Nothing On that Frayn has conjured has created a more well-rounded character for a young woman (a sexy tax collector) to play than Frayn has himself (a sexy idiot).
Additionally, Dykstra and his costume designer Erika Connor have sexualized Brooke beyond what is necessary for the comedy – in fact, to such an extent that it undermines the actress playing her and those playing opposite her.
Noises Off requires that Brooke spend much of the play in her underwear, but rarely has the character been forced to wear such a revealing dress beforehand – or such a skimpy set of undergarments.
Many of the physical positions she ends up in during the first act spring from the imagination of Dykstra, not of Frayn – and seem to belong to the present era of Internet porn rather than the history of the British sex farce.
In 1982, Frayn was making fun of a form of theatre, largely alien to Canadian theatregoers these days, that involves young women wearing very little and older men dropping their pants at regular intervals.
But can it really be considered a satire of sexist old farces when it recreates their sexist conditions (and even heightens them) – especially as the referent disappears into the distant past?
Frayn’s farce does actually hint at the skewed power dynamics of theatre in the past (and in the present) – with Nothing On director Lloyd starting affairs with both Brooke and assistant stage manager Poppy (a charming Oyin Oladejo) at the same time, despite the fact that rehearsals are only two weeks long. But this abuse of power is largely treated as comical – and it’s Lloyd who suffers the most serious consequence from it all, a nervous breakdown.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into a small part of what is ultimately a frothy, frolicsome evening at the theatre.
Most of the second act, after all, is a dumb show with the cast playing monkey in the middle with a bottle of whisky, sitting on cacti and threatening to kill each other with a giant axe straight out of a Warner Bros. cartoon.
I did laugh at much of this – though I was left feeling more distant from the proceedings than at some of Dykstra’s previous comic productions, most recently David French’s backstage comedy, Jitters.
Ultimately, Brooke’s overexposure and underdevelopment in the first act are just symptoms of the problem of Dykstra’s approach to this comedy – where it is hard to follow who is in love with who, or why, for instance, the two male leads turned against one another.
Much of this production feels more like choreography than comedy, as character goes missing.
Dykstra nails the doors and the sardines, though.
Noises Off continues to Oct. 22 (soulpepper.ca).Report Typo/Error