Sunday, September 29, 2013

Doors and Sardines -- Noises Off Opens in San Leandro

Noises Off, written in 1982 by English playwright Michael Frayn, is a farce. That's a good thing. But it also means that there's plenty of, well, noise, and pants falling down and axe-wielding and carefully-timed entrances and exits through the multiple doors built into the versatile set. There are many constantly relocating plates of sardines, a theme that works its way through the entire evening. There's a pretty lady in her underwear during much of the play. Someone sits on a cactus -- and you see it placed on the chair at center stage and know that a cast member is going to hurt themselves before long.

The production is a play within a play in three acts (all of them called Act 1). We get to see the first act of the production of Nothing On, performed within Noises Off, three times. The first is the dress rehearsal just hours before the first performance. Lines are missed, blocking is still awkward, and tension is high. We meet the actors and director in Noises Off and we see them as the performers in Nothing On. They step in and out of character, and prepare the audience to be ready for an evening of hilarity but one that will require us to pay attention so we can remember who's speaking when an actor opens his or her mouth.

Cute: There's a program-within-a-program for Nothing On, complete with humorous cast biographies.

The second Act One gives us a view from behind the scenes a month into the 10-week run. The staging again takes place in the country home of the Brents (who are sneaking back from out of the country, where they have gone for tax purposes). However, in the dark between scenes, the actors have literally rotated the set 180 degrees, so we now see the backside of the stage, and against it, the dark underside of life in the theater. It's who's dating whom, who's mad at whom, who's bored, who's tired, who's gossiping about whom. We learn that all of the doors open to a common space.

Meanwhile, the play, to which we've already been introduced in the first Act One, proceeds out of our sight. Listen carefully, and you'll hear the same parts, but, of course, not delivered in exactly the same way, with comic results. It's really yet another play starring the actors of Noises Off taking place behind-the-scenes of Nothing On.

The third Act One shows us the complete breakdown of the production in a performance near the end of the run. We're looking at the Brents' living room again, but it's a very weary cast, and the hilarity ensues when we see how each actor (in the inner and outer play) copes with the mess. There are some surprises worthy of Monty Python -- and Bugs Bunny. Most fascinating to me is how some Nothing On actors can improvise -- perhaps too well -- and others can't get away from playing the part exactly, even when it's ridiculously inappropriate. This got big laughs.

Director Erik Scanlon, in his Note on the inside cover of the program, compares this kind of wild farce to Looney Tunes cartoons, and it's true. The manic energy, carefully timed comings and goings, loud noises and pratfalls are here done with people, not animated characters, but it's the same feeling. Anything can happen, and probably will.

There's a third level in this play -- the actors themselves. In these conditions it may be hard to separate the real person from the two actor parts each must play on the stage. Certainly it's an energetic and likeable cast, including local veterans, mostly younger actors. From Row 4, Seat K, it was easy to hear and to understand their delivery. It must be a challenge to have to act as an actor and as an actor performing as an actor (do you follow me here?), especially when the performers in Nothing on are meant, like the Rude Mechanicals in Shakespeares's A Midsummer Night's Dream, to be hilariously incompetent. The rodeo clown must be the best rider and roper, remember.

I had a chance to speak with several cast members after the show, and they were gracious, funny, and, well, exhausted. They were also, being pros, nothing like the roles they played in either play. I may have to attend the final performance to see if they, like the cast of Nothing On, have fallen apart too (somehow I expect that they won't). 

Noises Off  is the latest production at the Curtain Call Performing Arts Theater at 999 East 14th Street in downtown San Leandro, California. CCPA's vision is to ensure that performance-based arts are accessible to everyone who desires to participate or attend performances by keeping ticket prices low and class/workshop tuition affordable.

Performances run from the Friday, September 27 show I saw through Saturday, October 26. Shows begin at 8 p.m. on  Friday and Saturday nights 2 p.m. for Sunday matinees. See for details. Tickets are $25 general admission (with assigned seating) and $22 for students and seniors. The theater is intimate, holding a maximum of 67. There's not a bad seat in the house.

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