It’s all in the timing at Redhouse

John Bixler as the ever professional director Lloyd and the lovable Brooke, played by Carmen Crafts. Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski

John Bixler as the ever professional director, Lloyd, and the lovable Brooke, played by Carmen Crafts.
Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski

Noises Off
Who Redhouse Arts Center
Where 201 S. West St. Syracuse
When Through April 6
Tickets $20; $15 for members
Review by Josh Austin

What’s that aged advice for amateur actors? Oh, yes: When you’re nervous, just imagine the audience in their underwear.

But what happens when acute stage fright slips into a conscious coma? Props are forgotten, lines are blown and somehow the plot is lost somewhere in the middle of Act II when you’re only 15 minutes into the show.  Somehow, I think that imaging the elderly audience in their skivvies during a Sunday matinée isn’t going to solve any problems.

Fortunately, if Michael Frayn’s farce within a farce Noises Off—now playing at the Redhouse Arts Center—teaches actors anything, it’s a strong, grin-and-bear-it lesson that the show must achingly trod along.

That’s the beauty of Frayn’s farce (and the recent box office comedy failures should take serious note): it’s always about the timing. Luckily, the Redhouse’s production, directed with comedic tenacity by Stephen Svoboda, fully realizes this.

Take away the gimmicks like shtick violence and horny lines, and what’s left? Actors who need to be able to pummel each other with zinger upon zinger and the ability to wisp on and off the set with perfect pace, slamming the door as they go.

Noises Off has been an audience favorite since it arrived on Broadway in 1982, bringing about a film starring the insatiable Carol Burnett and leaving a wave of regional and high school actors vying for the chance to try out their comedic chops, which shouldn’t be taken lightly. This play within a play is hard to put on, or at least looks hard.

For a lengthy, nearly three-hour show, holding an audience’s attention is effortful, but keeping them laughing, that’s a feat. Still, the show’s going well when there is just as much enjoyment coming from the audience’s laughter, such as the women in the first row’s jarring laugh-sob, the man with the hyena cackle or the woman who was obviously induced into a humorous labor.

Noises Off is a whimsical backstage comedy, desperately blurring the line between the moment of curtain up and final bows. An assumingly Off-Off Broadway type London theater company is ready to begin their tour of Nothing On, a between the sheets-esque farce, pandering to those who have a sense of humor for cheeky one-liners (much like those of have a penchant for Noises Off). There’s an empty English townhouse, maid included, a tax-evading couple, a geeky real estate agent trying to get it on with the “dumb” hottie and a tragically past-his-prime burglar.

It’s quickly discovered that the actors are not that different from the characters they are playing, as in, collectively, they’re not the smartest group of people. For fun—or research purposes—we are provided with a fake Playbill of the show Nothing On. We see that the English-stage star Dottie Otley, playing the Cockney accented Mrs. Clackett (played by Karis Wiggins) is familiar with the Mrs. Matron archetype, having played to the tune of Mrs. Duckett, Mrs. Hackett and Fru Sackett. All of the fake bios provide little glimpses into the somewhat impressive careers of the English A-listers.

Poppy (played by Grace Allyn), the nervous, frustrated stage manager of 'Nothing On.' Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski

Poppy (played by Grace Allyn), the nervous, frustrated stage manager of ‘Nothing On.’
Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski

Though, for a group with a good amount of experience, what they lack is professionalism, which is what so gracefully carries the rest of the show. Act II takes us behind the scenes for the brutal trials of a cast gone awry. You see, there are little love affairs burgeoning everywhere. Dotty and Garry (played by an appealing Martin Glyer), Lloyd the director (an incredible, professional John Bixler), and Brooke (a sensational Carmen Crafts), Lloyd and Poppy (the frustrated stage manager; played by Grace Allyn) are all not-so-secretly slogging. But, it’s the mishaps of other interests within the cast that rouses for the violence backstage, and in the third act, on stage.

This cast is like a well-oiled machine, working valiantly together to make sure that the show self-combusts, each carrying his dysfunctional weight. Wiggins, as the starry matriarch, brilliantly crosses from professional to an emotional wreck mindlessly muttering about the condition of a rug and a plate of sardines (not in the Nothing On script mind you). Match that with Martin Glyer’s Garry, a frustrating actor who can’t manage to get one thought out and Navroz Dabu’s Selsdon (who plays the burglar in Nothing On), who is a drunken Shakespearean actor, and the cast in total shambles toward the end of their tour, fussing and fighting and most likely waiting for impending lawsuits.

Redhouse presents a typical, fully refreshing rendition of the farce, where the weight of the show never needs the help of costume, lights or even the set—but rather the actors. That being said, it’s an impressive accomplishment when a tiny space like the Redhouse can artistically convert its minimum square feet into a sprawling English home, then completely turn the set around to depict the backstage (kudos Tim Brown). And, if anything, it’s fascinating to watch the crew and cast work just as hard during the intermissions give the set a 180-degree turn.

Lloyd presents a subtle anecdote for what it means to be an actor, and it has to with props—or in this case, that pesky plate of sardines. He states, “Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off. That’s farce. That’s theater. That’s life.” And, for this cast, that philosophy is hilariously true.

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