The audience at the opening night performance of the Sacramento Theatre Company production of Michael Frayn's 'Noises Off' could have been enjoying a 'Where's Waldo' book, as we all tried to spot the actual goofs among the scripted goofs.
'Noises Off' is perhaps the funniest show ever written. This very physical comedy traces the actions of a hapless British touring theater company in three acts: from final dress rehearsal for a play called 'Nothing On,' to a performance a month later, and another performance two months after that.
And a lot of sardines are involved.
Act 1 begins on the set of 'Nothing On,' hours before the opening performance, at a point when the actors still don't know their lines and cues are missed. It would appear that this show hasn't a hope of going anywhere near smoothly.
Act 2 reveals what takes place backstage, while a somewhat more stabilized performance is presented to an audience out front. There are romantic tensions, substance abuse, vindictive battles among the actors ... and a stage manager desperately trying to hold everything together, despite her own problems.
Act 3 returns to the 'foreground' set, at a point when all pretense of putting on a smooth performance has evaporated, and the task is merely to get through to the end.
Nothing goes right in this play - by design - and the hilarity builds until the audience laughs nonstop.
I've often said that 'Noises Off' probably is the only play that could suffer on-stage disasters with no consequences. This cast proved that beautifully on opening night: A plate of sardines wasn't where it should be; a box of spilled food sent an orange rolling across the stage; an actor tripped over the edge of the set's turntable, and pulled off a large piece of it; and a door fell off the hinges, necessitating spontaneous dialogue and stage business.
Those who knew the show laughed at these mistakes, but I'm sure first-timers assumed it was all part of the show. The talented cast handled all the disasters with aplomb, and incorporated them into the script: a true testament to their professionalism.
And a first-rate cast it is, starting with Jamie Jones as Dotty Otley, an aging star who has put her money into this production in order to perform. Dotty is appropriately named, as she can't remember anything - neither lines nor stage business - but she's just so happy to be on stage again, that she doesn't realize the problems she's causing for everyone else.
Dotty is only one bane of the existence of director Lloyd Dallas (Matt K. Miller), who uses sarcasm and cajolery while trying to pull performances from his cast, when all he really wants to do is leave this group and direct 'Richard III.' This role is well-suited to the talented Miller, who can do anything, from exploding at a cast member to being part of the physical comedy in Act 2.
Brett David Williams plays Garry Lejeune, an eager young actor whose role is the most physical. Williams must lose a few pounds during each performance. The inarticulate Garry - who has suggestions for everything, but never actually finishes a coherent sentence - is secretly in love with the older Dotty, which causes great problems as the run of the play continues.
Katherine C. Miller is the vacant Brooke Ashton, who appears to have come fresh from the casting couch to a role for which she is woefully unprepared. Miller, a brunette, is a break from the traditional blonde who plays this part, but she nonetheless captures this 'dumb blonde' beautifully.
Michael RJ Campbell is Frederick Fellowes, a method actor with an aversion to violence, whose squeamishness about blood is quite funny.
Michelle Hillen is Belinda Blair, perhaps the most competent of the troupe's actors. Alas, Belinda's role is primarily that of company peacemaker and caretaker for her friend, Selsdon Mowbray (Patrick Murphy), an actor well past his prime, whose problems with the bottle are apparently legendary.
The role of Tim Allgood - handyman, bookkeeper and understudy - is shared by John Ramos and Jake Murphy.
Ramos had the part on opening night, and he handled it adroitly.
The perpetually frazzled Poppy Norton-Taylor (Lynn Baker), who tries to keep things running smoothly, has her own secret that she desperately needs to tell someone.
Everything is overseen by (actual) director Michael Stevenson, who delivers a fast-paced and hilarious production that will delight even the most discerning theater-goers.
One final comment should be made about 7-year-old Jackson Margolis, who gave the welcoming speech to the audience prior to the performance, while also explaining that he had been in theater 'for one-third of his life.' His ease on stage was a great testament to the strength of STC's young people's program.