Also see Richard's review of Disney's Aladdin
Most theater people are at least vaguely familiar with Noises Off, the farce with eight doors (sixteen if you count the backstage action in the second act) but if you've never seen it with actors of the caliber of this production, well, it might be a little like going from basic cable up to High-Def; or from regular DVD up to Blu-ray. It's a very rich evening of detailed characters and great comedic direction by Jason Cannon.
With all those doors, Michael Frayn's comedy could be called the "stretch-limo" of farces (though it often resembles more of a ten car pile-up of clown cars). In act one, the cast of a little play called Nothing On struggles through a tech rehearsal before taking their show on the road. And between the love triangles and all the outrageous demands of farce, well, everything that can possibly go wrong, does go wrong. The British admonition to "Keep Calm and Carry On" has never been so challenging, and never so funny.
The first time I saw Noises Off, several years ago, I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about. Despite a few talented people, that other production just seemed like a pile of mush. But this time I saw endless new possibilities, and an explosion of nuance on-stage. (Can "nuance" actually explode? It seems to, here.) Everything in the Ozark Actors Theatre version seems to have meaning, and every comic moment has been plumbed to its fullest depth.
Lavonne Byers, frequently called the best actress in St. Louis, has been on hiatus from the stage for several years, but finally returns as the middle-aged British actress Dotty Otley, having a backstage fling with a younger man (the hilarious Gregory Cuellar) as they prepare to mount their farce-within-a-farce.
Ms. Byers' look of intense confusion and bewilderment begins the evening, as her grandiloquent, god-like director (the excellent Bryan Dobson) stops her again and again for the tiniest infractions of the commandments of the genre. All the actors' shortcomings in the mechanics of the show take an unexpectedly Old Testament turn as the director descends from the balcony again and again to set them straight, and as they listen, helpless and dismayed, each time he returns to rescue his own private Jerusalem.
When they get to the next village with their show (and we go backstage), romantic triangles get tangled up like handcuffs and the rushing around gets hectic and hilarious. By act three, Mr. Cuellar (as one of the actors in Nothing On) finds about a thousand different ways to say Oh, my God! in breathless horror.
Sarah Cannon, a delightful, diminutive actress who could probably play Juliette for another twenty years, gets a tremendous break from her usual roles, playing the sharp-witted actress who tries to straighten things out, again and again, to very little effect. And, as things get worse and worse, she gets to play with a harder and harder edgewhich is a huge delight for anyone familiar with the casting she usually gets.
Blane Pressler is fantastic as the quintessentially British idiot, always one step behind the story, as when as he hands a huge fire ax to a presumed rival-in-love, spelling his own certain doom. Bess Moynihan is the long-suffering stage manager in the play, eventually broken down to tears, but somehow at her funniest (or most endearing) in her solitary weeping backstage. It's just amazing that the whole cast has so finely polished every one of their hundreds of little thoughts and decisions, and that director Cannon has got them all right up to the boiling point of pace and precision. Kristin McGuire, as the comely young blonde, along with the youngest and oldest men on stage (Michael Detmer and Gordon Fox) also score good laughs in their roles. And at the opening night's curtain call, the applause was loud and long.
Through July 22, 2012. For more information call (573) 364-9523 x100 or visit them online at www.ozarkactorstheatre.org
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States
** Denotes member, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, a national theatrical labor union