Off-stage

Portland Stage looks behind the curtain
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 31, 2007

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LOSE CONTROL: Actors play two parts in one.

“All the world’s a stage,” waxes Shakespeare’s Jaques, but nowhere is that more true than backstage. Who could harbor more dramatic neuroses about the spaces between “seems” and “is” than those who traffic exclusively in illusion? It makes for particularly histrionic hilarity in Portland Stage Company’s first production of the year, Noises Off, the beloved “metatheatrical” English farce by Michael Frayn, snappily directed by Samuel Buggeln.

The “meta” part has to do with the fact that Frayn’s comedy is theater that gazes at theater. Specifically, it takes a look at a small and particularly dysfunctional touring troupe that can’t stop gazing at themselves — and each other — long enough to successfully mount their own production, a farce called Nothing On. The theatrics of their attempts — in the face of affairs, feuds, whiskey, and misplaced sardines — far surpass the theatrics of the play they’re putting on. We, the audience of both, get a rich and riotous glimpse into the characters who inhabit the characters.

The doubleness of our gaze has a physical analogue in Anita Stewart’s impressive two-way set, which rotates to let us watch the foibles of Nothing On first from the audience’s perspective, then from backstage, and finally once more from the house. With every theatrical illusion stripped away by our behind-the-scenes perspective, we see a little more of how these actors actually go about (or fail at) making the show go on.

Noises Off’s stage-within-a-stage is populated by affectionately-drawn theatrical types. There is the aging matron of the stage, Dotty (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis), who plays the maid of Nothing On. She’s having a rather bewildering affair with the handsome but none-too-bright young male lead, Garry (Scott Barrow), whose stage paramour is the blonde and adorably absent Brooke (Lisa McCormick). There is also the silver-haired drunkard of a stage veteran, Selsdon (Evan Thompson), who plays the burglar whenever the cast has managed to keep the whiskey out of his hands. Belinda (Kim Ders) keeps everyone abreast on who is sleeping with whom, while the sensitive Frederick (John Little) craves detailed motivations for where and why he carries his box of groceries. On the technical side of things are the long-suffering pushover of a stage manager, Tim (J.P. Guimont, most lately of Mad Horse) and his mousy and insecure assistant, Poppy (Tavia Gilbert, a Portland actor seen in Flo and Glo and The Stage at Spring Point’s Twelfth Night). Holding it all together, or mostly not, is the deliciously acerbic director, Lloyd (local great Mark Honan, looking remarkably like a disaffected Bono), who is dallying with two different women on the set.

The comedy of both Nothing On and Noises Off revels in innumerable concealments, escapades with props, and entrances and exits through eight different doors. It is classic slapstick, and it requires an exceptionally agile cast. Buggeln’s cast one is nimble, swift, and smart. The timing of these actors is intimidating, and the play of their characters between on- and off-stage personalities is refreshingly fluent. This cast also includes a gratifyingly higher-than-usual percentage of local talent with Honan, Gilbert, and Guimont. It’s particularly fun to watch Honan stalk around saying snarky and bombastic things, and McCormick’s Brooke has some understated but devastatingly funny physical gags with which she tides herself over when rehearsal gets constipated.

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