‘Noises Off’ is farces all the way down

Third Rail Rep pulls out all the shticks for Michael Frayn's farce

We could begin a review of Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” which is getting a swift shtick in the pants from Third Rail Repertory Theatre, with some general commentary on the subject of farces, which might take in the importance of underwear (garish for the men, revealing for the women) and the relationship between Farce, The Erotic, and Tragedy. Fortunately, the Third Rail playbill covers (or uncovers) all of that. Actually, I should say “playbills,” plural, because this show has two of them, one for “Noises Off” and one for the show-within-the-show, a farce that “Noises Off” farcicalizes. OK, yes, I just made that word.

Instead, let’s jump to Stephen Sondheim! I just saw the documentary “Six by Sondheim” on HBO, which among other things is a meditation on six Sondheim tunes. One of those is “Send in the Clowns,” of course, and this verse popped out at me, having just seen “Noises Off.”

Don’t you love farce?
My fault, I fear.
I thought that you’d want what I want –
Sorry, my dear.

And I asked myself, are there people out there who don’t like farce? As a form? People who can resist the pratfalls, hijinks, romances on the rocks, the inevitable hilarity of watching OTHER people splutter and blanch as their desires race out of control and lead them to humiliation?

Well, of course there are. And even those of us who quite enjoy them aren’t always in the mood. So yes, if you aren’t in the mood or don’t care for farces (which I totally understand) you might steer clear of “Noises Off,” clever as it is and as well as Third Rail pulls it off.


Isaac Lamb and Karen Trumbo stoop for laughs in "Noises Off"/Owen Carey

Isaac Lamb and Karen Trumbo stoop for laughs in “Noises Off”/Owen Carey

Is “Noises Off,” technically speaking, a farce? It certainly has the form and elements of farces, and it also wallows in their depictions of ids rampant. But it is meta-farce, farce that knows it is a force, which it announces with that whole farce-within-a-play device. Then again, the action outside the farce, among the actors playing the farce, is also a farce. So, we have a farce-within-a-farce, two farces for the price of one, if you’re looking for a post-Black Friday bargain. It’s farces all the way down.

So, back to Sondheim, I’m wondering, if the person who doesn’t “love farce,” would enjoy Frayn’s wit unleashed on the form, or would that person just think it was twice as bad?

For me, once I’d stopped chuckling, I started think some of the following thoughts:

  1. How what we are “really” feeling leaks into our presentations to the world of what we’re feeling, no matter what
  2. How little explanation we need to piece together a basic life situation (comedy)
  3. How quickly we accept “types” as somehow “real”
  4. How much we need to see pain transformed into laughter, and how instructive that is
  5. How close art is to life

Your thoughts will no doubt vary!


Damon Kupper and Isaac Lamb in "Noises Off"/Owen Carey

Damon Kupper and Isaac Lamb in “Noises Off”/Owen Carey

I’m not sure you need to know a darn thing about this production other than it’s very well done, right?

Maybe I’ll mention some of the actors. Karen Trumbo plays the former TV sitcom star taking one last turn with a touring show just for the money. I remember her back in the 1990s playing major roles excellently at the late great Portland Repertory Theatre, and have always enjoyed her performances, the timing (she played in David Ives’ “All in the Timing”!), the clarity, the restraint. Of course, she isn’t quite so restrained (“The sardines,” she wails) here! David Bodin, who plays the stereotypical alcoholic actor Selsdon Mowbray, is another great acting resource in the city, completely at home in almost any situation and delightful in comedy. Spencer Conway, a graduate of Portland Actors Conservatory in 1997 (which he mentions in his playbill bio and which we should probably mention far more frequently with other actors), is a member of the 3rd Floor Sketch Comedy Troupe, and that becomes immediately apparent as he negotiates the role of the actor who questions ALL the directions of the director. Damon Kupper, a core member of Third Rail, gives Garry Lejeune the crazy energy he needs to accelerate things to warp intensity.

OK, I’ll mention everyone! Kelly Godell plays the vacant blonde bombshell with just a hint of an undercurrent of camp, which maybe she picked up playing Janet in “Rocky Horror”? Amy Newman, who won a Drammy Award (lots of Drammy Awards in this cast, by the way) for supporting actress in “God’s Ear,” is the long-suffering stage manager Poppy, which she inhabits with just the right sense of romance-dashed dejection. Rolland Walsh is hilarious as assistant stage manager Tim Allgood, and I think you’ll be seeing a lot of him on Portland stages (he was splendid in Third Rail’s “A Noble Failure” last year). I write a lot about Maureen Porter and Isaac Lamb, and if you see Portland theater at all, you know how deft they are on stage.

Third Rail Repertory Theatre's "Noises Off"/Owen Carey

Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s “Noises Off”/Owen Carey

Scott Yarbrough, the artistic director of Third Rail, directs here, which means he has to manage more physical shtick than contemporary plays usually demand. I think that’s unfortunate, I mean that we don’t have more slapsticky bits on our stages. Our comedy tends to be SO verbal. Anyway, Yarbrough keeps the doors slamming on time, which is a feat in itself. This show is complicated: the playbill includes a dialect coach (Stephanie Gaslin), movement (Philip Cuomo) and violence(!) (Kristen Mun) directors, along with scenic (Sean O’Skea), costume (Emily Horton) and sound (Scott Thorson) designers. The stage manager and assistant stage managers, Olivia Murphy and Jory Bowers, have a TON to do. And the playbill lists yet more contributors, including seven scenic carpenters, but we’ll stop from sheer exhaustion, yes? (Well, how about Don Crossley as production manager and Demetri Pavlatos as technical director?)

The point is that to make a meringue isn’t as easy at it looks, and if it looks anything BUT easy, it won’t be as funny. Yeah, sometimes we forget stuff like that, for which we apologize!

So, did I take you somewhere you didn’t want to go? My fault I fear. To console myself maybe I’ll go back later in the run.

2 Responses.

  1. Carol Shults says:

    Great review of superb show. But then I LOVE physical comedy. Took friends to the show who never laughed once!! They don’t love farce, I fear.

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