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The fine art of farce

A Valley reviewer recently dubbed Phoenix Theatre’s “Noises Off” the “best comedy you are likely ever to see.” I’d be inclined to agree had I not seen so much fabulously funny fare from this professional theater company through the years.

There’s plenty more to come from Phoenix Theatre — including the first production of the racy Broadway musical “Avenue Q” by an Arizona theater company. Who’s to say they won’t outdo themselves yet again?

Their casting is simply superb — and this show is no exception. Add a complex and creative set, maddeningly funny material and music to knock your socks (or boxer shorts) off — and you have a farce that’s nothing short of fine art.

"Noises Off" elevates farce to a fine art (Photo by Laura Durant)

Direction by Matthew Wiener, producing artistic director for Actors Theatre of Phoenix, only fuels the flames — for both the fantastically talented cast and the audience members who mistakenly presume they are out for a night of modest theater.

Picture yourself in a British theater waiting for the curtain to rise on “Nothing On” presented by “A Noise Within” productions. You’re leafing through the program only to discover actor/creative team credits that include playing Britain’s most famous lollypop lady, winning a coveted medal for violence, and loving anything small and furry.

It’s easy to imagine because every “Noises Off” playbill includes a fictitious “Nothing On” program replete with cast/creative team bios as well as a lovely bit of dramaturgy borrowed from an expert ‘in the semantics of Bedroom Farce.’

Members of the "Noises Off" cast in all their slapstick glory (Photo by Laura Durant)

If you carefully read the pseudo-program before the curtain opens, you’ll get your fix of fascinating facts about various elements of the production — the slamming doors, the falling trousers, mistaken identities and more.

You’ll discover that uproarious laughter, for some, “is a metaphysical representation of the sexual act.” If that’s the case, you’re in for one heck of an orgy when you see this show.

Good news for parents: Other than a black negligee and boxer shorts (not worn together, thankfully), there’s little that’s explicitly rude or crude in this show. It’s rife with inuendo, but I can’t imagine that many kids would catch the subtleties. They will, however, appreciate the many triumphs in physical comedy.

You never know where that baggage might end up (Photo by Laura Durant)

“Noises Off” by Michael Frayn consists of three acts featuring the folly of a ficticious “Nothing On” production. Act I depicts the final rehearsal for “Nothing On” — setting up characters and situations that won’t be fully appreciated until later in the work. It’s funny, but you won’t yet find yourself wishing you’d made that last minute potty stop.

Act II reveals a bevy of backstage bungling as we witness a performance of “Nothing On” from behind the scenes. It’s funnier and more outrageous than the first, but the farce really hits the fan during Act III, when we finally see the onstage mayhem as it appears to unwitting audience members.

Plenty of pratfalls involve persnickety props — a disappearing and reappearing plate of sardines, a rotary dial phone with a tendency-to-tangle cord, flowers that never cease to find their way into the wrong suitors’ hands. The rotating set-piece — the two-story home where “Nothing On” is set — is equally delightful.

I do have to wonder, though, whether younger audiences would be more appreciative if the work was updated a bit with Starbucks in lieu of sardines or computer wires in lieu of telephone cords. Of course, there’d be no stopping there since the world may soon be wireless — and the modern day quest for efficiency robbed of sensual pleasures like reading a paperback book over a cup of coffee might just as easily bring caffeine injections via some sort of biochip.

Steer clear of slippery sardines, among other things (Photo by Laura Durant)

It’s been several days since I saw the play, being performed at Phoenix Theatre through Sept 19 (extended from Sept 12 due to ‘popular demand and critical acclaim’). But I still find myself leafing through the actual program — where I’m learning all sorts of things about our local talent.

Leann Dearing (Brooke) and her husband Matthew are acting instructors with Dearing Acting Studio. Mike Lawler (Selsdon) is a member of Phoenix Theatre’s “Partners That Heal” program. Maren Maclean (Belinda) has extensive Shakespeare experience (including several seasons as education outreach director for Southwest Shakespeare Company) — which I’m convinced is the best training ground for the craft of comedy.

Gail Wolfenden-Steib (costume designer) operates Rukshana Raks!, a custom dancewear business specializing in belly dance costumes for both cabaret and tribal dance styles. Katie McNamara (properties designer) has worked as a prop artisan for the Utah Shakespearean Festival, Shakespeare Santa Cruz and others.

Matthew Wiener (director) holds an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. Michael J. Eddy (production manager/lighting designer) sits on the board of Scorpius Dance Theatre (which presents “A Vampire Tale” to sold out crowds each Halloween season). Pasha W. Yamotahari (assistant director and more) holds a journalism degree from the Cronkite School at ASU and has earned dramaturge and critic awards from the presitigious Kennedy Center.

Beware of doors that fly open or slam shut (Photo by Laura Durant)

Despite the farcical nature of the fare, I came away from it asking myself a rather serious question. Might I want to be a dramatuge when I grow up? Thankfully, I still have time to decide.

In the meantime, being an avid supporter of the Valley’s arts scene is a mighty fine gig.

–Lynn

Note: Mention the word “sardines” when ordering your tickets to enjoy a $5 savings while the offer lasts.

Coming up: Lynn and Liz encounter a frog and a toad a la Childsplay in Tempe; “Music Man” (with Phoenix Symphony and Phoenix Theatre) meets the Musical Instrument Museum; Making magic happen

Photos (from the top): Joseph Kremer;  Mike Lawler, Joseph Kremer, Christopher Williams, Maren Maclean, Cathy Dresbach; Christopher Williams, Leeann Dearing; Christopher Williams, Cathy Dresbach; Joseph Kremer, Cathy Dresbach, Robert Kolby Harper, Leeann Dearing (counter-clockwise from top left). All photos by Laura Durant of Durant Communications.

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