ALT to revive beloved backstage farce 'Noises Off'
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By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
If there's anyone who knows the uproarious farce Noises Off, it's Jeff Jarnagin.
He's directing Amarillo Little Theatre's revival of the comedy, which opens Thursday, just as he did in 2001, the last time ALT staged it. Before that, in the mid-90s, he starred in it while attending school at West Texas A&M University, and before that, he worked in the backstage crew at a 1992 production at Amarillo College.
But there's something, in Jarnagin's neologism, "unexpectable" about this latest production.
The Michael Frayn comedy will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and March 2; 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and March 3 and 4; and 2:30 p.m. Sunday on the ALT Mainstage, 2019 Civic Circle. (It was moved up a week from the originally announced schedule.) Tickets are $19 for adults, $16 for students and seniors, and $13 for children Thursdays and Sundays, and $21 for adults, $19 for students and seniors, and $15 for children Fridays and Saturdays.
"There are the universal jokes of Noises Off that these actors seemed to pick right up on," said Jarnagin, referring to the script's countless slammed doors and other physical comedy bits. "For the most part, my involvement has been basically the same show with different actors.
"But I'm finding with this cast, they do things a little differently," he said. "They make some of the jokes of the jokes I expect unexpectable — is that a word? — so it has really turned into a little different process for me, and I like it."
The basics of Frayn's comedy are still in place: "It's all slapstick, physical comedy. There's not a lot of thinking involved," Jarnagin said.
The play shows what it's like to stage a comedy — with the problems heightened enormously for effect, of course. A group of ... well, fairly lousy actors are working with director Lloyd Dallas (Michael Newman) to put on the sex comedy Nothing On: Debbie Perry as Dotty Otley (Mrs. Clackett), Ryan Sustaita as Garry Lejeune (Roger), Amber Laugesen as Brooke Ashton (Vicki), Zeke Lewis as Frederick Fellowes (Phillip), Emily Escobal as Belinda Blair (Flavia) and Michael Westmoreland as Selsdon Mowbray (the burglar), with Jorden Whetston and Jonathan Mobley as Poppy and Tim, the backstage help.
Nothing On is only a so-so work at best; what Frayn does around that frame is where the humor lies.
The Nothing On actors struggle to remember their lines and blocking. For example, does Dotty bring in sardines or leave them behind? It sounds simple, but Dotty is constantly bringing on sardines or leaving them behind. Constantly.
"Do I take it or do I leave it?" Perry said. "This is my fourth show, and it's the hardest show I've ever done because the blocking is a killer. It really is, and Jeff's ready to kill me."
It's not easy, cast and director alike said, to navigate Frayn's tight choreography of lines and action — especially when, in the second act, the entire set rotates and the audience sees the play from the backstage angle, with the Nothing On actors miming their way through a disaster while, on the other side of the stage, the play completely falls apart.
"Act 2 — oh Mylanta," Perry said. "I've never experienced anything so difficult."
Jarnagin — who, remember, has done time both directing and acting in the show — agreed.
"There's so much for an actor to keep track of," he said. "As actors, you have to multitask as it is — remember your lines, to act naturally, remember your motivation, as well as dealing with props and directors and with the audience.
"In this, it's all of that times 10," he continued. "There is not an easy role in Noises Off, but at the same time, it's every actor's dream role. Every actor wants to know if they're capable of doing these roles."
That's certainly the case for Sustaita's Garry, the stammering fool cast in the leading role of Nothing On, quite possibly because of his relationship with the much-older Dotty.
"Ever since I saw this show, I've dreamed of being in it," Sustaita said. "I auditioned for it and didn't even dream I had a chance."
Sustaita, who appeared in next to nothing earlier this season in The Full Monty, said Noises Off is a one-of-a-kind experience.
"You rely on each other as an ensemble in every show, but especially in this one," he said. "It's such a fast-paced show that you have to, or it turns into complete chaos that the audience can't follow."
Jarnagin starred as Garry in his WT production, and he said Sustaita's approach to the character is one of the most different, but most pleasing changes he's seen in this production.
"You'd think I'd be super-critical (of anyone playing Garry), and I am to a certain extent, but I keep telling him I've never seen it played this way," Jarnagin said. "I can't quite put my finger on what he's doing differently, but he's doing it — and it's working!"
Sustaita's approach is to emulate one of his favorite actors.
"I'm honestly channeling a Kristin Wiig vibe," Sustaita said. "It's over the top, very much that sort of character."
"It makes me laugh," Jarnagin said.