Review: Comedy's repartee lost in cavernous venue

It's impossible to present Michael Frayn's backstage comedy "Noises Off" without getting laughs, and Modesto Junior College's staging gets plenty.

But it doesn't get as many as it should considering how well the material is written. This 1982 comedy should have audience members laughing until their sides hurt. As it was performed Friday in the main auditorium, there were significant stretches that devolved into unfunny chaos.

An ensemble piece that requires every performer to work in lock-step precision, the play centers on an inept theater troupe staging a door-slamming farce. Act One focuses on the disastrous rehearsal, Act Two on the even worse first performance, and Act Three on the chaotic final performance at the end of a tour.

Much of the comedy comes from how well Frayn nails the world of the theater. He gets everything exactly right, from the performers' easily bruised egos to their complicated romances and penchant for taking everything way too seriously.

As directed by Lynette Borrelli, the cast does best with physical comedy. They tumble on cue, and pound and bump into each other as well as the Three Stooges.

But much of their repartee is lost because of the cavernous venue. It sounded like there was an echo on stage. That, combined with the overwrought British accents by some of the performers, made much of the dialogue sound like mumbling.

The cast has no real standouts or weak links. Sarah Thomas is nervous and forgetful as Dotty, who plays Mrs. Clackett in the farce. Sean Trew is inarticulate and impatient as Gary/Roger and Nidal Bukhari is exceptionally sensitive as Frederick/ Philip. Jamie Lee Hudson is the cast mother as Belinda/ Flavia while Steven Adkins fills the role of cast drunk as Seldson/burglar. Kelsey Verschelden is ditzy as sexy Brooke/Vicki.

Playing the behind-the- scenes characters are Mark Dooley as the frustrated director Lloyd, Bryan Fretwell as overworked backstage hand Timothy and Kendra Griffith as lovelorn stage director Poppy.

Costume designer Anne Shanto dresses them appropriately in contemporary street clothes that would work anywhere.

Ty Helton's elegant mansion set is magnificent and features two levels, multiple doors and grand staircases. Friday's audience clapped when the performers and crew turned it around for the second act to reveal its backstage.

The play has so much going for it that it's too bad that it was hard to understand the dialogue consistently. The show would have been much more effective in a smaller 150-seat to 200-seat venue rather than in the 820-seat auditorium.

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