The first professional Toronto production of Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s 1982 play about a sex farce called Nothing On, is an uproarious piece of choreographed chaos that’ll leave you breathless, both for its wealth of gags, and its lusty, headstrong cast that finds space for vulnerability and sorrow in their broad-stroked characterizations typical of the genre.
Nothing On is a tale of a couple charged with tax fraud, played by Raquel Duffy and Christopher Morris, and the guests who interrupt them as they hide out in their country home.
Indebted to jazz chord progressions, Frayn employs a structure of repetition and revision to present us with the first act of Nothing On, done in three ways: in rehearsal in Act 1, from backstage some weeks into the tour in Act 2, and once more on the play’s closing night in Act 3. This allows characters to measure how they work out offstage quarrels and trysts against a fictional endeavour where a script and a director relieve them of having to decide much for themselves. This setup grounds performers in the anxiety of being responsible for their lives, which lends Noises Off a sense of urgency and intensifies a cactus in the ass cheek, or a perfectly timed pants drop, of which there are plenty.
Matthew Edison is fragile and magnetic as the posturing Garry Lejeune, an actor who masks his lack of emotional intelligence by speaking like whoever he’s talking to should somehow already know what he means.
Brenda Robins and Oyin Oladejo, as actor Dotty Otley and assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor, submit to repeated exposure to power and sexist dynamics like a rite of passage. Their psychological erosion over the course of the show might seem secondary to their plethora of perfectly executed gags, but it’s part of what carries Noises Off past a means of entertainment and into a silent reflection on traumatic self-effacement.
Continuing this line as the perennially aloof actor Brooke Ashton, Myrthin Stagg constructs a safe internal world for her where a pinch of the skirt or a blank stare is as far as we’re let in. Her benevolence leads us to imagine otherwise and form an impression that we know her better.
The cast’s physical comedy chops etch moment after visually charged moment into memory. Under the direction of Ted Dykstra, bodies flip, fly, and fall down stairs, and a dizzying number of cues with a motley of props prevent our adrenaline from normalizing for more than a minute or two.
A third act that hinges on relentless disorientation recalls the theatre of the absurd and closes out this epic display of talent, teamwork and trust sure to be buzzing in the ears of award show board members across the city right about now.
Noises Off runs until Oct. 22 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit http://www1.youngcentre.ca