By Jennifer Mustoe
Not often is there a possibility of seeing three similar, play-within-a-play productions within one month of one another, in the same county. However, I was able to do this and want to write a little about it. I was able to see Play On!, Backstage, and Noises Off, in that order.
I saw Play On! at a wonderful theater in Pleasant Grove, Utah. What Play On!’s has going for it:
- Two conflicts: A bossy, ever-rewriting playwright who graces rehearsals with his presence as he slogs in with new, updated scripts regularly, and a cast who has worked together so often they bicker constantly, in a funny, we’ve seen this in families sort of way
- Diverse characters: a teenager who finds out she is stage struck on opening night (hilariously), a long-suffering director, the diva who is superior than all the rest, her long-suffering co-star and husband, the know-it-all techie, and the bad guy, who is deliciously evil.
- The play within a play is in British accent, which gives some interesting and easily discernible layers to the show.
What this production also had going for it were decent performers and a fun, tight set. The directors kept the stage looking clean and uncrowded, even though there were several actors and little space. The show itself was a little slow and, in typical community theater fashion, had some actors who were amazing and one, in particular, who was really quite awful. On its own, Play On! was a cute show and one the whole family could see, which is in its favor.
Next I saw, and yes, acted in Backstage. I was in Backstage last year and was able to understudy for the part I created last year. I went to see the show this year to get a feel for how this year’s show is being run, and it was interesting to see scenes I never saw before. It will probably seem like I favor this show because I love the part I play and the opportunity to do a lot of ad lib. I do favor the show. I admit it.
Jody Renstrom, Backstage’s playwright, saw Noises Off years ago and loved it, but felt it was too racy for Valley Center Theater’s (a community theater Jody and her husband Keith started 36 years ago) family audience. I am amazed at how different Backstage is from Noises Off and have to pat Jody on the back. She took the play-within-a-play theme, but built an entirely new show. Some of the basic characters are slightly similar, but the plotline is very different.
Backstage begins with the auditions, then goes through the show’s early rehearsal period in Act One. In Act Two, we see dress rehearsal with the set pieces what would be onstage, and then the stage is returned to the backstage. What the audience sees onstage in front of them is actually the backstage where the actors wait to go onstage, which is behind the curtains. I hope this makes sense. Where Jody took a completely different track is we see the actors backstage, having costume issues, mental breakdowns, a few love stories, an allergy to flowers, and some insistent phone calls, while onstage (behind the curtain), we hear the actors go through the lines we saw them rehearsing in Act One. It is layered on top of one another, timed so that when things are said onstage (backstage), the actors backstage, in front of the audience, reply but it is happenstance. It’s really quite brilliant. And funny.
What it has going for it:
- An inventive two plays going on at once device
- A few cute love stories
- Physical comedy
- Fun characters: a bossy, opinionated and sometimes cruel director; downright mean diva, a funny, perky assistant director, a somewhat geeky techie, and a very quirky German costumer. The other characters were nothing that brilliant, but were appropriate to complete an ensemble.
- Because this is an original play, Backstage’s playwright Jody, and her grandson Tyler, who is in the show and its director/producer, have given the actors permission to ad lib and push their characters every performance. This may be Backstage’s best feature, as the play evolves every night.
- It, too, is family-friendly.
Noises Off, reputed to be one of the top ten play-within-a-play format productions, was the best final play-in-a-play production I saw. What it has going for it:
- There is tightly choreographed action almost 100% of the time.
- It has very precise, well-drawn characters, whose relationships with the other members of the cast are clear and scripted, so each part is very finely defined. Those characters include an almost ridiculously dictatorial director; a frumpy, shy stage manager; a man who’s eager to get a rather dim but sexy young thing into bed – this man being my favorite and says, “You know,” rather than ever finishing as sentence; a husband and wife team who are hilarious, awkward, and, in the case of the husband, a nose-bleed victim; a alcoholic, rather eccentric older actor; and a middle-aged somewhat has-been diva who just wants to make enough money to get a little cottage somewhere.
- The actual set pieces move and the moving of them is another fun device, as the actors scurry, talk, sweat and occasionally bicker.
- The love stories all fall flat.
What was similar and contrasting in all three plays:
Diva: all three plays have a diva, but Backstage’s is written so their diva is sexy, mean, and a rather bad overly-dramatic actress. Play On!’s diva was more the I’ve-been-here-forever-and-you’d-better-respect-me type. She, too, was a horrible actress. Noises Off’s diva was something of a has-been, but she was still a great actress. Out of the three divas, I have a hard time saying which one I liked best. The actresses doing these parts were all very good, very convincing and very funny.
One thing that Backstage and Noises Off have that Play On! did not is a lot of physical comedy, a few love stories, and a crazed, megalomaniac director. And it is the physical comedy that I think brings Play On! down a notch for me. I noticed the audience very involved while all that physical hilarity went on in both plays. The audience for Play On! was delighted, but not as involved.
I could expound about the spaces the plays were produced in, but they are really not germane to the actual scripts of each show, nor the essence of the performances for me.
In closing, I will say I love all three shows. But, even though I am in Backstage and therefore, remarkably in tune and invested with that show, the winner for me is Noises Off. As of this writing and posting, it is still in production—TONIGHT – so I suggest you go.
Backstage has one and a half more weeks of shows. Please come see it. It is worth it!
Congratulations on a job well done to all productions. Keep up the good work, keep your wonderful, talented selves onstage, and keep us laughing. Thank you sincerely.
Info about Noises Off: https://www.facebook.com/events/473406002726837/
(Our Review: http://frontrowreviewersutah.com/?p=1024)
Info about Backstage: https://www.facebook.com/valleycenterplayhouse
(Our review: http://frontrowreviewersutah.com/?p=1018)