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
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