Arts & Culture

Cast of ‘Noises Off’ good at looking bad

You have to be really good to look as bad on stage as British playwright Michael Frayn calls for his deliciously complicated, door-slamming farce “Noises Off” about what happens when everything that can go wrong with a show does. The title refers to extraneous noise backstage heard by audiences.

And the fearless, perhaps even slightly foolhardy troupe at Wichita’s Forum Theatre, under guest director/actor Rick Bumgardner from Kansas City, proves to be up to the challenge.

The show relies on the precision of escalating — and carefully choreographed — chaos to keep the comic dominoes falling hilariously into place. If timing is off, even by a smidge in some cases, it can all fall apart as quickly as a house of cards. The trick is for the actors to make it look naturally klutzy while actually being in control the whole time.

On opening night, Act I about a disastrous dress rehearsal went beautifully. But Act II, which happens backstage during a disastrous performance, seemed a little cautious as actors were swinging around a pretty real-looking axe and plunging headlong down a full flight of stairs. That slowed the pace. But they got all the shtick right, so it’s just a matter of getting up to speed for subsequent performances.

Director Bumgardner, in a bit of insider mischief, also casts himself as the insufferable, condescending, womanizing director of the show-within-a-show, who is publicly dating the gorgeous ingenue while bedding his faithful assistant. Bumgardner, a former Wichitan and Wichita State University grad, struts and preens and whines in a wicked parody of probably every director he’s crossed swords with.

A trio of Wichita comic heavyweights — Barb Schoenhofer, Monte Wheeler and Tom Frye — lay a solid pratfall foundation as, respectively, the beloved but dotty leading lady, her full-of-himself costar and off-stage boy-toy, and an aging legend who tends to find his artistic inspiration in a liquor bottle.

Schoenhofer delivers an in-your-face, Carol Burnett-style performance that’s broad, brassy and funny as all-get-out as she can’t seem to keep track of her props. She makes hilarious magic by tangling up a telephone, a newspaper and a plate of sardines.

Wheeler, who falls down stairs, and Frye, who is tipsy on his feet, seem to deserve battle pay. Wheeler plays a matinee idol who mugs haplessly and hilariously when he can’t articulate his thoughts under pressure. And veteran Frye surely must have a patent on his beloved drunk routine.

Keeping right up with the veterans are Kylie Jo Smith (the former Kylie Jo Jennings using her new married name) as a clueless bombshell who perpetually distracts fellow cast members with her meditation exercises in a black lace bustier, and Stephen Hitchcock as the epitome of dimwit method actor who can’t move until he understands his motivation — to the frustration of everyone else.

Megan Parsley plays the elegant cast gossip, Cary Hesse is the long-suffering assistant director and Aaron Profit is a backstage handyman charged with keeping everything going, even if he has to step in for an actor who misses his entrance.

As much of a star as any of the people is the sturdy, two-story English country home set by Alberto Martinez with nine doors (seven that can be slammed) and a full, curving set of stairs. The entire set rotates — mostly quietly except for one door frame — so audiences can see both on stage and back stage. Turning the set between acts even becomes part of the show.