Farce is deceptive. It's light and frothy, but far from easy to perform. All those slamming doors, fast entrances and exits and dropped trousers have to be timed with great precision. If they're not, well, that's what Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" is all about.
"Noises Off" takes the usual challenges of the genre and multiples them exponentially. And at Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival, director John W. Ford and his cast are splendidly up to the task.
The situation is this: A British troupe is touring the provinces with a sex farce called "Nothing On." By the time the evening is over, however, we realize the play should have been called "Nothing Right."
The director is having affairs with both the ingenue and the assistant stage manager. The company's veteran actor has a longstanding relationship with the bottle. And the troupe's senior actress, who has put up the money for the show, is romancing the leading man, who is jealous to the point of paranoia.
In the first act, Frayn takes us through the harried dress rehearsal, which gives us an idea of how the show is supposed to go. The second act takes place a month later, when things are beginning to fall apart. By the third act, the company has been on the road for three months and, suffice it to say, tensions have not diminished.
Although we never get to see all of "Nothing On," there's no question that the backstage shenanigans are far funnier than the play itself. Director Ford's split-second choreography of all the mayhem is a stunning achievement in itself. One extended sequence with an ax calls to mind the antics of the Flying Karamazov Brothers.
A technical leviathan, "Noises Off" has been admirably tamed by Thom Bumblauskas, who has designed a clever double-sided, turntable set; technical director Randy Jacobson; and Georgia Baker, who has clothed the actors in an array of swiftly removable costumes.
The entire cast is top-rate, but particularly noteworthy are Steve Antonsen as the leading man, who takes a monumental third-act spill down a flight of stairs; Holly Pasciullo as the myopic and daft ingenue; Tom Wyatt as the increasingly frustrated director of "Nothing On"; and Scott Graham and Annmarie Amlick as its harried stage managers/understudies.
Frayn, a British playwright, is also the author of this year's Tony Award-winning play about quantum physics, "Copenhagen." That may seem a long stretch from the farce-within-a-farce that is "Noises Off," but both works investigate alternative versions of a single scenario. That's about the only similarity between the two, however, and there's no question that "Noises Off" is more audience-friendly.
It's also the kind of show actors love to perform, and while the ones on Towson's stage get quite a workout, they are clearly having a grand time. Adhering to one of the cardinal rules of farce, however, they never let us forget that their characters are in dire straits. The plot of "Noises Off" may be an actor's nightmare, but this production is a theatergoer's dream.
Show times at Towson University's Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre, Osler and Cross Campus drives, are 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and July 13, and 2 p.m. July 9, through July 15. Tickets are $18. Call 410-830-2787.
More news from the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, the appointment of whose artistic director - James Kinstle - was announced in this column last week. The festival's 2000-2001 season will consist of recent works, beginning with Paul Rudnick's off-Broadway comedy, "I Hate Hamlet" (Nov. 2-19) and "Love for Words" (Oct. 5-22) local playwright Kimberley Lynne's biography of Shakespeare, initially produced by AXIS Theatre's Other Voices program in 1997.
"Because we're coming from a low financial area we're trying to do small productions and work up to cast a full Shakespeare," Kinstle said, explaining that his extended mission for the 6-year-old festival includes productions of "modern texts that are about Shakespeare or inspired by Shakespeare." He added that he hopes to produce Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" in the spring. Negotiations are under way for a downtown performance space.
Meanwhile, the festival's Artist-in-Residence programs will continue during the coming academic year at Baltimore City College, Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School and Patapsco High School.
Tickets for "Love for Words" and "I Hate Hamlet" will range from $5 to $15. For more information, call 410-837-4143.
Neil Simon's newest play, "The Dinner Party," currently at Washington's Kennedy Center, will transfer to Broadway in October, according to a spokeman for producer Emanuel Azenberg. The comedy about marriage and divorce, set in a Paris restaurant, stars Henry Winkler and John Ritter. You can catch it at the Kennedy Center through July 16. For more information call 800-444-1324.
Acting for teen-agers
The Performance Workshop Theatre Company is offering a Teen Acting Workshop for beginning-to-intermediate-level students, ages 13-18, July 31-Aug. 4. Mary Hardcastle, a faculty member at Villa Julie College, will lead students in warm-up and relaxation exercises, improvisations, theater games and scene and monologue work. Classes will be held from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the theater, 28 E. Ostend St. Tuition is $150. Enrollment is limited to 10 students. For more information call 410-659-7830.