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THURSDAY, JUNE 8, 2017   
Vol 10.23   
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The Farce Is Strong
Noises Off, A Madcap Marvel @ Shadowland This Month

Why is it that the funniest comedies poke fun at the misfortunes of others? Slipping on a banana peel, delighting when someone gets a pie to the face... those are just physical examples of our innate reaction to the woes of others. There's a word for it — schadenfreude — and it's a staple of comedy.

It's also just one of the many ways the Shadowland Stages production of Noises Off, deftly-directed by Brendan Burke and Catherine Doherty, successfully masters this farce. I never like to rank these plays fresh out of the theater, but I'm ready to call this my favorite comedic play of my adult life. It has unseated Rumors, by Neil Simon, which is no easy feat.

The play opens in the wee hours of a final dress rehearsal for "Nothing On," a saucy British romp set in a large estate in the English countryside. The stage manager is exasperated. This is a play-within-a-play after all, and actors are still learning their lines. Alcohol has gone missing. Humans have gone missing! No one can keep track of props or cues. Love triangles encircle and complicate. Lost contact lenses and lingerie lead to running gags and back-stage shenanigans that build to such epic pandemonium that they eventually spill onstage. And this is where the "marvel of technical engineering" that Noises Off is often called, presents itself. After Act 1, the two-story set is literally broken apart like puzzle pieces, rotated, and reassembled so that you are sitting "backstage" for Act II. It's said that the author, Michael Frayn, paid a backstage visit to one of his earlier comedies and realized that it was a good deal funnier seen from behind. We couldn't agree more. The momentum builds as again the stage is rotated for Act III, and we are back in front of the set to witness this rag-tag troupe at the end of their tour, now completely unhinged.

In this lively and madcap production, there are a lot of slamming doors and slippery plates of sardines — but this is the ballet of door-slamming and the well-oiled choreography of balancing those sardines. Not to mention the meticulous costumes: lingerie that cleaves to the body during physical comedy deserves its own award. But all this magnificent chaos only succeeds because of the incredible cast — each character is so perfectly realized that in combination they embody nothing less than pure comedy gold.

There's the delightful Denise Cormier, who channels an endearingly wacky Lucille Ball. Ben Paul Williams looks like a young Moriarty, slick and dapper, personality bouncing through his rubber face and neck like butter dripping off a hot biscuit. Air-headed ingenue Elisabeth Ness hits all the right notes. Torsten Hillhouse is from the Thurston Howell School of starchy Englishmen, utterly hilarious, and sometimes pants-less. Denise Summerford is the level-headed-dame Anne-Bancrofttype we all need; Sean Cullen (who you will recognize from film and TV) is spot on. And Steve Brady is a doltish mix of Hemingway and Bill Murray; there came a point when I could literally not look at him without devolving into delirium.

And as we are laughing at actors being hit by doors, (expertly) falling down stairs, and all other manner of horseplay, we are simultaneously invested in them. After opening night, I asked Burke if any audience reaction surprised him. He replied that there was a moment when the audience was worried about a character, and gasped. "They were invested in the mistakes of the character, even early on," he said.

And that's the best comedy of all — laughing with someone, as well as laughing at them.

Noises Off runs through June 25th, with performances Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2pm, at Shadowland Stages, 157 Canal Street, in Ellenville. For tickets and info, visit shadowlandstages.org or call 647-5511.



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