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CSC’s “Noises Off” Leaves Them Laughing

Review by Doug Iden of “Noises Off”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

This is one of the funniest plays I have seen in a long time.  The problem is that you miss three jokes while laughing at the first one.  You may need to watch it several times to absorb all the humor. The play is Noises Off which opened at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company Theater.

This is a classic British farce with a few twists throw in.  It has the usual door slamming, misunderstandings, conflicting agendas and confused characters but part of the uniqueness is a play-within-a play format having actors first rehearsing a play, then performing the play while slipping back and forth between themselves and the characters they are portraying.  Trying to keep track of the actors and their characters becomes increasingly challenging as the evening progresses.

The play opens with a technical rehearsal of a fictitious show called Nothing On. We are first introduced to Cincinnati theater veteran Dale Hodges, a housekeeper in a wealthy English country home named Dotty Otley but portraying Mrs. Clackett (whose name is constantly mispronounced).  Mrs. Clackett is housekeeping for the tax-evading couple Philip Brent (played by Frederick Fellowes played by Justin McCombs) and Flavia Brent (Belinda Blair as really played by Kelly Mengelkoch).  The Brents are living out of the country but secretly return to Britain.  Meanwhile, a real estate agent (Roger Tramplemain, played by Garry LeJeune actually played by Jeremy Dubin) is trying to rent the house to Vicki (Brooke Ashton played by newcomer Brooke Steele).  (At least, she wouldn’t be confused about her first name.)  Joneal Joplin fleshes out the imaginary cast as a burglar who cannot remember when to make his entrance.

The technical rehearsal is continually interrupted by frustrated Director Lloyd Dallas (Brian Isaac Phillips) who is trying to finalize the show with an ill-prepared company who can’t remember their lines or the actions.  There is a hilarious ongoing routine where Dale Hodges’s character cannot remember the order in which she is supposed to answer the phone, get the newspaper and serve a plate of sardines.  (The sardines become an ongoing joke.  This is a British play, after all.)  Hodges plays a somewhat dim-witted, stodgy character but her actress persona is very sharp with money in the show while lusting for a younger man (Dubin).  We also meet the Stage Manager (Geoffrey Warren Barnes II) and his uptight assistant Poppy (Sara Clark) who are trying desperately to make the show work.  We see the entire first act of the Nothing On show through the rehearsal.  The remainder of the show builds on the play being presented because the second act depicts the opening night of the actual performance.

In the first act of the show, we see the ornate and sumptuous country home with characters coming in and out from backstage through various doors.  But, in the second act, the set literally swivels so we now see backstage which is dingy, unpainted and utilitarian.  The set, designed by Joe Tilford, almost becomes a character in the play.  First, we see the fantasy world of the illusory theater and then we see the harsh, drab reality of the real theater.  There is a third act (which is handled as a scene change) when the set revolves again with the culmination of the show.

Farce is reliant on exquisite timing as characters appear and disappear on the stage through doors.  The choreography of movement is critical and the cast’s timing is impeccable.  Much of this is due to (actual) Director Ed Stern.  The dialogue is also spoken with machine gun rapidity and often overlapping but the audience still has to hear the lines and the cast does this well.

Each of the characters has an alter ego so the actors have to play two different roles and, as usual, the Shakes cast is up to the challenge.  Each of the actors play their roles superbly with extra credit to Dale Hodges, Joneal Joplin, Jeremy Dubin and Kelly Mengelkoch.

The action on stage, especially in the second act, is non-stop and resembles a combination of a Nascar race and a demolition derby.  There are a billion sight gags and many continuing routines.  An example is the journey which a whiskey bottle takes.  Joplin’s character is an imbiber who continually tries to steal a bottle of whiskey which passes from character to character like a drunken relay race.  Another example is a three-ring circus routine where all of the characters are on stage doing various sight gags.  You, literally, cannot absorb it all.

This is the final play in Shakespeare’s initial season in their new digs and it has been an excellent journey.  My personal favorites have included Dracula, Othello, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and this one.   So, do yourself a favor and partake of Noises Off even though you may be in danger of splitting a rib from laughing too hard.