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Monday, August 1, 2011

Georgia Shakespeare knowingly celebrates the art of the farce with 'Noises Off'

At one point in Georgia Shakespeare’s Noises Off — actually, at several points — a character superglues himself to a letter and a plate of sardines and declares, “I’ve heard of getting stuck with a problem, but this is ridiculous!” Nobody ever says things like that in real life, of course, unless they’re making a point of being unfunny.

Part of playwright Michael Frayn’s cleverness with Noises Off is that he realizes how artificial and stupid characters in stage comedies can behave. The kind of perennial hit that always seems to be onstage somewhere, Noises Off earned its reputation not only for being a pitch-perfect English farce, but also a witty deconstruction of the genre.

The concept finds an English theatrical troupe performing their final dress rehearsal of a farce-within-the-farce called Nothing On, which includes all the stock situations, beginning with an eccentric housekeeper (Carolyn Cook) who opens the show by answering the phone and delivering lots of exposition to the person on the other line. When the character Mrs. Clackett gets muddled up, we realize that she’s actually an actress — the appropriately-named “Dotty” — trying to keep her lines and props straight.

Nothing On’s plot eventually incorporates a lascivious lawyer and his chippie (Joe Knezevich and Ann Marie Gideon), a rich income tax fugitive and his wife (Mark Cabus and Tess Malis Kincaid) and an aging burglar (Allan Edwards). But the actors have their own problematic quirks, and the self-important, slow-burning director (Chris Kayser) tries to get the cast through the final rehearsal before opening night. The problems of the actors and crew (including Scott Warren and Caitlin McWhethy) aren’t quite as outlandish as their fictional counterparts, but they eventually unleash chaos on Nothing On.

Act Two literally revolves the play’s set to show the backstage shenanigans during a disastrous live production, with the half-crazed actors trying to remain silent as they miss cues, play pranks on each other and try to deal with stray fire axes, cacti and missing contact lenses. One of the pleasures of Noises Off is the way the text and Georgia Shakespeare’s production give the audience plenty of credit: we can get jokes that take place out of our line of sight, and can appreciate intricate slapstick choreography that can involve more than one sight gag taking place at the same time. Directed (in real life) by Richard Garner, Noises Off feels a little long, but still features crack comic timing and physical humor attuned the rhythm and musicality of slamming doors.

Frayn and Georgia Shakespeare alike have fun tweaking the foibles of theater people. Intentional bad acting can often seem like a means to an easy laugh, but most of the fictional actors seem acceptably talented. Gideon gets away with exuberant overacting by being both funny and spoofing at the way airhead sexpots come across in farces. Cabus plays the kind of thespian who needs motivation for the most trivial activities, while Knezevich’s leading man grows invariably tongue-tied whenever he goes off-script. Perhaps the show’s funniest exchanges find Gideon resolutely remaining on-book despite Knezevich’s flailing attempts to improvise.

Noises Off even hints at a motto for living. One character describes the play’s challenges as “Words. Doors. Bags. Boxes. Sardines. Us,” and another suggests that if they just hit all their marks, everything will fall into place. It almost holds up as a “one day at a time” metaphor for life, but Frayn undermines the idea through the play-within-a-play’s hilarious deterioration. Maybe if you slam doors too often, you’ll bring the house down in the best and worst ways.

Noises Off. Through Aug. 14. Georgia Shakespeare, Conant Performing Arts Center, 4484 Peachtree Road. 404-264-0020. www.gashakespeare.org.

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