By Andrea Johnson
Noises Off is a wild ride from beginning to end, and ensemble cast of The Empress Theatre in Magna takes us energetically along from chaotic commencement to frenetic finish.
My companion for this production is a native of Magna, so she was my tour guide for the evening. We started out dining at Nonna’s, a historic and haunted pizza joint on Main Street in Magna. Right down the street, flashing lights indicated Disney’s production of Andi Mack was filming, and after the show, I walked down Main Street through the two blocks of set dressing. Even The Empress is decked out in Andi Mack attire. It was delightful to be so up close and personal, and right here in our own backyard. This is a cautionary tale, however. Filming times often block off that end of Main Street, so be aware if you see flashing lights that you may need to park down a block or two and walk up. There is parking at The Empress, so if you get there early, you should be fine. Also, given the early hours of darkness, most filming should be completed by show time.
If you haven’t seen Noises Off already, you are certainly missing out on a theater classic. The play is a production about the production of a play, including all the mishaps, miscues, and romantic entanglements found therein. There are three acts spanning six months of a touring production of Nothing’s On, including the final dress rehearsal in the first act, backstage of a performance 6 weeks into the run in the second act, and then the final act, which brings the audience back out front for a final performance after a long and arduous run. This show is truly an ensemble piece, and precision of performance between the actors is key. I was impressed with the balance of talent and skill within the cast. As I reflected on the evening, the word that kept coming up was ensemble. This is the epitome of an ensemble cast.
Natalie Peterson plays end-of-career Dotty Otley, and her stage character of Mrs. Clackett, with crispness and energy. Peterson’s “management of the sardines” precision (as my friend said afterwards, “so many sardines”) and management of the stage is strong and commanding. Bruce Craven as Lloyd Dallas, the intrepid director of Nothing’s On, plays the part visibly weary from the beginning and just spirals down afterwards, vainly attempting to keep up with his various affairs among the cast and crew. His sense of abandon in the guise of hope for his little production is delightful. Craven represents the beaten down directors of the theater world well.
Reed Williams as actor Garry Lejeune, and his stage character of Roger, is deliciously pitiable. Unable to come up with a complete or cogent sentence as an actor, his world falls apart when ad-libbing becomes necessary for Roger. I wanted to finish his thoughts for him to save the embarrassment of another “you know.” Andrea Byron is charming as Vicki, playing the ingenue Brooke Ashton in Nothing’s On. Vicki has no problem remembering her lines, but is staunchly incapable of an ad lib, even when everyone else around her is just making up the whole thing. Byron is completely comfortable with the awkward physicality of Vicki, and belies the blonde prototype, while simultaneously embracing it.
Hollis Rivenbark as Poppy Norton-Taylor, the production manager, plays the frazzled stage director with wide-eyed panic. I loved her energy and emotional roller coaster throughout the show. Rivenbark is expert at reacting to the crazy around her, and wears her emotions brazenly on her sleeve.
Blake London as the apologetic Frederick Fellows, worries incessantly about the motivation of his onstage alter ego of Philip. London is engaging and delightful, but especially in his interplay with his stage wife, Belinda Blair (Kristina Boler) as Flavia (are you confused yet?). Boler is a commanding presence on the stage, and her confident attempts to use sign language to convey information is deliciously annoying. Her attention and care for the other actors embodies the “mother hen” role to a T.
Jose Hernandez as stagehand and erstwhile understudy, Tim Allgood, is a frenetic whirlwind. I was exhausted just watching him, and I worried about his sanity and safety. Hernandez commits totally to the character of Tim, physically and emotionally, and was fun to watch flying around the set. Rounding out the ensemble is Perry Whitehair playing the sot, Selsdon Mowbray. Whitehair spends the entirety of the play (and the play-within-the-play) looking for and finding the unlimited bottles of liquor his well-meaning compatriots are trying to keep from him. Whitehair is never where you think he is supposed to be, and adds a plodding pace that contrasts the energy of the other players.
Due to the small stage, the set changes between acts were a little cumbersome. I am not sure there is a way to fix them, given the parameters of the theater. Also, I did attend the final dress rehearsal, and I am sure they will get smoother over the run. The opening announcement does address the fact that the set change between Act 2 and Act 3 is long enough for a quick break, but not quite a second intermission. Perhaps parts of the second set change could be played off as part of the set up for the play-within-a-play instead of a lights-out scenario, but honestly, being forewarned was very helpful, even though the set change was a bit distracting.
That small issue aside, Director Melissa Jensen has done great work in the unique space of The Empress. Seating runs stadium style up two opposite sides of the stage, so balancing the action to each side can be a challenge. My companion worried aloud about staging as we took our seats, but we didn’t miss a thing. The action moves quickly and effortlessly throughout the theatre, and it was just a great deal of fun to be so close to the action. Jensen sets a fabulous pace of the show, delightfully pushing through the various manifestations of the play-within-a-play, all while allowing the audience keep up with the dialogue and innuendo.
Speaking of innuendo, there is quite a bit. The Empress has rated this production as PG-13, and I heartily agree. Parents of pre-teens may want to have their kids sit this one out. The bedroom humor would probably sail right over the heads of younger children, but the pace would leave them behind quickly. The bedroom humor is not extreme or brazen however, and mostly dealing with hints of an afternoon tryst in the play-within-a-play or references to various sexual relationships between the actors and production staff. I would be comfortable with my high schoolers attending, and Noises Off was produced at my high school.
Adventuring to Magna is always fun. The historic Empress Theatre has been standing for over a century, and the spirits of Main Street are “alive and well.” So, come on over to Magna, and participate in the wild rumpus that is Noises Off. You will not be disappointed. Pro Tip: Get the garlic knots at Nonna’s, and plan to stay a little while afterwards to check out the set of Andi Mack.
The Empress Theatre presents Noises Off by Michael Frayn
The Empress Theatre, 9104 W 2700 S Magna, UT 84044
November 10-18, playing Monday, Friday-Saturday 7:30 PM, Saturday matinees 2:00 PM
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Noises Off Facebook Event