“I’m going to do something wrong here ...” Those ominous words, emblazoned on the cover of the program to the Shift Theatre/Berkeley High School Drama production of Michael Frayn’s backstage bungler, Noises Off, telegraph the message of this non-message play clearly. And a great deal is going to be done wrong. Repeatedly. That’s the whole show.
A favorite with companies large and small, and their audiences—what stage actor doesn’t want to do a pratfall while playing something serious, and who doesn’t enjoy watching them do it?—Noises Off is really a 3-D look, fore and aft (onstage and backstage) of the same doomed show, from dress rehearsal (onstage) to a month on the road (backstage) to a couple of months later.
A typical three-act entertainment, as defined by George M. Cohan: Act One: hero goes up tree; Act Two: throw rocks at him; Act Three: get him back on ground again. But in Noises Off, the ground itself is shaky. And the rocks—thrown by all, including the hero(es)—never stop flying.
“All these doors!” exclaims dubious ingenue Brooke, a.k.a. Viki (Kelly Friedman) with a big sweep of the arm, at the beginning of “Nothing On,” the play we see deteriorate from scratch. And it does seem to be an old-fashioned door-slammer. “Only a handful, really,” breathes her escort, Garry/Roger (Nico Kiefer). And they’re both right: the doors commence to open and slam as the various couples and solitary characters file in, in syncopated entrances unbeknownst to each other—and they’re all a handful, in costume or in mufti.
The great comedy of Frayn’s play, which the director, Molly Bell, and her cast of nine have a handle on, is the underbelly of the beauty of live theater. That is, what happens when the difference between the real people who act and the characters they’re playing gapes open, big as a chasm—and what happens when the spectacle you’re watching is the resulting implosion of the one you were supposed to watch?
Door-slammers rely on pinpoint timing—and a door-slammer deliberately gone awry has to turn over that beat with a funny flourish. The Shift Theatre bunch bit off a lot with Noises Off, and they have a lot of fun bringing it off, from Dotty/Mrs. Clackett’s (Elena Wagoner) dottering entrance as the old housekeeper: “I can’t open sardines and answer the phone!” in East End drawl, constantly (and dryly) interrupted by her director Lloyd (Eli Wirtshafter), to the chorus of three burglars who serially break and rebreak the same window to enter onstage, covering (so they think) a missed exit, all finally reciting the lines in unison as the set breaks up in mayhem.
The two-story set itself, on wheels, as meticulously built by Mathison Ott and Samuel Owens, is rotated twice—to thunderous applause—so the audience may glimpse the many doings onstage and off.
The cast, crew and director of “Nothing On” all bring their own baggage along, especially Lloyd the philanderer, who—like various stage tyrants—enjoys making his victims cry, in particular the stage manager (Anne Yumi Kobori), constantly in motion, though he can’t seem to get a rise out of Belinda/Flavia (Sonia Decker), of his leading ladies. These three have the most pronounced characters, and get the most out of them.
The rest are, more or less, real characters in the scenic sense: Selsdon/Burglar (Mark “Thor” Sorenson), the cast lush; Tim Allgood (Peter Walton), the sleep-deprived stage carpenter and erstwhile stand-in; and Frederick/Philip (Eric Chiang), whose nose gushes red when the going gets thick.
Shift Theatre has a few more coming up at various locations: The Vagina Monologues in February at the Ashby Stage, Independent Theater Projects in Feb. and March at the Hillside Club—and back at the Schwimley at Berkeley High in late April-early May for Grease.