For the first show since shuttering its doors two years ago due to COVID-19, Ferndale Repertory has staged playwright Michael Frayn's popular farce Noise Off. It's an ambitious choice — the plot is complicated, the dialogue is demanding; missed lines or uneven timing could easily derail the comedy of errors. Fortunately, the cast, under the direction of Alex Blouin, is up to the challenge.
With Omicron running rampant, theater going isn't what it used to be — proof of vaccination, a temperature reading and a mask are required before entering the Ferndale venue. For those who love live performances, however, it's an acceptable request.
Noises Off first premiered in 1982 in London to critical acclaim. The comedy then debuted on Broadway the following year, earning several Tony nominations. Since then, Frayn's farce has been a staple of community theater companies and has had two Broadway revivals. The inventive premise came to Frayn in 1970 after seeing a few of his short plays performed. "One night I was watching from the wings, seeing the actors dashing between the different doors backstage," Frayn said in an interview with the Guardian. "It occurred to me that it was all far funnier from behind than it was in front."
In a nutshell, Noises Off is about a second-rate theater troupe putting on a farce called Nothing On. The play-within-a-play opens with a subpar group of actors rehearsing into the wee hours before opening night. In act two, it's a month later and the audience's view is backstage, watching the tensions and jealousies between actors play out as the company performs the same play. The final act shows the cast back on stage at the end of their run, relationships destroyed and the play's narrative out the window.
The clever concept requires five of the actors to switch back and forth between their Noises Off and Nothing On characters. The cast members handling multiple roles — Emma Dobbins, Ben Bailey, Kaelah Nicole Franklin, Evan Needham and Caroline McFarland — do so with aplomb. In lesser hands, the play could easily feel convoluted, but the Ferndale Rep actors never lost track of who they were supposed to be and when, allowing the audience to effortlessly follow the plot.
Dobbins, who is first onstage, portrays Mrs. Clacket, the cockney housekeeper of the country manor where Nothing On is set; she also plays Dotty Otley, an aging American actress who can't keep her lines straight and has a financial stake in the show. Bailey, who plays Garry Lejeune, an excitable American who never completes a full thought but rather finishes his sentences with "well, you know," and Roger, an English estate agent tasked with renting out the manor while its owners are on holiday in Spain. Franklin is Brooke Ashton, a dim bulb of an ingenue who, when not doing her scenes, seems scarcely aware of her surroundings, and Vicki, an Inland Revenue worker who accompanies Roger to the house for a tryst. Needham is Frederick Fellows, a self-doubting actor who blames himself when things go wrong on the set, gets nose bleeds when things are out of control and has an incapacitating fear of blood. His Nothing On characters are Phillip Brent, owner of the manor who has been abroad with his wife to avoid paying taxes, and Sheikh, a potential renter. McFarland brings to life Belinda Blair, an upbeat, sensible actress who is fond of Fredrick, and Flavia Brent, Phillip Brent's steadfast wife. David Powell plays Selsdon Mowbray, an old, affable drunk who keeps liquor hidden backstage and often goes walkabout only to be found passed out somewhere, and Burglar, a septuagenarian thief who breaks into the Brent's home, thinking it unoccupied.
The adept cast is rounded out by Brad Harrington, who plays director Lloyd Dallas, Holly Portman as the emotionally wrought stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor and Jordan Dobbins as beleaguered assistant stage manager Timothy Allgood.
At its first Sunday matinee, the troupe performed the farce without a hitch. The ensemble cast breezed through their roles, hitting their lines, pulling off impeccably timed physical comedy and revving up the action to a fever pitch that elicited guffaws from the audience.
Ferndale Repertory Theatre's production of Noises Off! runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Feb. 20. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
Michelle Drown (she/her) is a freelance journalist living in Ferndale.
Madsummer, Michael Fields' nursing home adaptation of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, comes to Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre Feb. 18 and continues through Feb. 27. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.