Little Theatre of Norfolk’s NOISES OFF: A Joyous Celebration of Theater

Throughout history audiences have enjoyed stories about putting on plays or making movies. The highlight of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is always the rude mechanicals’ presentation of “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” (The more lamentable, the better. Audiences especially love badly done attempts to make theater and movies.) Shakespeare learned of this audience propensity when his Love’s Labor’s Lost included the hysterical “show of the Nine Worthies.”

George Kelly’s American classic The Torch Bearers features a hapless community theater group. The hit musical Kiss Me Kate surrounds a touring production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The list could go on and on, including A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, The Producers, and A Chorus Line. When films are added, the list grows unmanageable, including Summer Stock, Singing in the Rain, and of course, Waiting for Guffman.

No contemporary play has succeeded with the metatheater genre as much as Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off. Each of the play’s three acts focuses on one day in the life of the play Nothin On’s Act One –  the technical rehearsal, a Wednesday matinee, and finally one of the last performances of the show’s ten week run.

Noises Off is a perfect choice for any community theater whose membership may include rank novices, seasoned professionals, those with no training and those with too much training, and many of various permutations in between. Noises Off allows all to look good, have a wonderful time, and provide their audience with an enjoyable time in the theater.

The play-in-a-play/movie genre is not as easy as it usually seems. The actors need to develop two characters – the actor in the play and the character the actor is playing.

My past experience with community theaters being mixed at best, I crossed myself and took a deep breath as we entered the David L. Burton Playhouse, home to the Little Theatre of Norfolk.

But I soon was engaged in a thoroughly mature, and professionally staged production.

The Little Theatre of Norfolk is celebrating its 90th anniversary season. The age of the organization shows, too, and in a good way. It is apparent that lessons learned have been passed, consciously and unconsciously, from generation to generation, resulting in a skill and wisdom in the theater arts which belies their amateur status. Director Kathy Strouse masterfully handles the assembled talent.

Martha Baker’s Dotty Otley gets the ball rolling as she reveals the middle-aged actress’ shrewdness in her dealings both on the stage and off. Her panic and despair are palpable. Rick Hamblin must have encountered directors like Lloyd Dallas, his portrayal is so true to the details of the harassed and harassing maestro, forced to suffer his fools gladly. Matt Downey wonderfully captures the scatterbrained actor Garry Lejeune who always believes he is saying more than he is. Brooke Ashton, the empty-headed bimbo, is in the capable hands of Emma Browning, who finds layers of complexity in a character who could be easily dismissed. Arielle Flax plays her rival in love, Poppy Norton-Taylor, the ever faithful, never appreciated Assistant Stage Manager. Catherine Gendell is wonderful as the Joan Collins wannabe Belinda Blair, whose sole mission seems to be to retain her fragile dignity, as she secretly and bravely struggles to keep the dramatic ship afloat. Joel King is her male match as Frederick Fellowes, the suave nitwit leading man. Grant Daniel captures the universal frantic lot of every company manager Tim Allgood. And Rick Hite essays the veteran thespian character actor Selsdon Mowbray with panache and heart.

The Little Theatre of Norfolk was a tremendous surprise for tired wayfarers with only three days of residence in their new home town. We couldn’t imagine a better welcome  – the best, bar none, community theater production ever.

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