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.