Utopia Theatre, UT campus
through August 2
Running time: 2 hrs, 40 min

There's nothing like a good farce well done. And Noises Off by Michael Frayn has long been known as a good farce. This hysterical homage to the theatre and its surrounding insanity has long been screamed about as the play that truly captures what this field of work is like with sardonic directors, clueless actors, and sleepy technicians. Despite its theatre trappings and in-jokes, Hollywood even made a run at this script with a movie that had an incredibly gifted bordering on genius cast, including Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, John Ritter, and Christopher Reeve. While the movie did not do stellar box office, it has become a classic in many theatrical circles, as well as a wonderful rental for those who love a hearty laugh.

Theatre Collective, in their production of Noises Off, has a great script. But are they able to re-create all of Frayn's delightful mayhem on Utopia Theater's tiny stage, including a set that has to have two stories and be able to spin 180 degrees?

You betcha.

Originally, I was skeptical. While good farce can be a few hours in heaven, bad farce is like a few hours trapped at a Jerry Lewis film festival. Knowing just how technically accurate and talented these actors needed to be to pull off Noises Off, I was afraid that I would be trapped in Hey lady!-land. But, with Paul Garlinghouse's layered direction and a cast willing to risk life and limb to make you laugh, this production does a great job of capturing the rowdiness and pathos of the opening of any show.

Sharon Elmore's Dotty Otley, the grande dame who risks her life savings on Nothing's On, the farce within the farce, is superb as is Karina Montgomery as Brooke Ashton, the ditzy ingénue. Fred Shipman as Frederick Fellowes, an actor who can't stand the sight of violence, and Paul Headrick as Garry Lejeune, an actor who is predisposed to creating pain in himself and others, give agile and frenetic performances. This is one of the few meta-theatrical shows that also gives stage time to the technicians: Will Coe as Company Manager Tim Allgood and Edi Patterson as Stage Manager Poppy Norton-Taylor are a scream. Plus, kudos have to go out to set designer Steve Canty, who managed to make this behemoth functional.

There are a few bumpy moments. Garlinghouse's direction sometimes lacks a clear focus and, with so much crazed movement, it can be tricky to know what is really important. The extended intermissions, which routinely ran 10 or 15 minutes over, add too much downtime to the show and make it hard to maintain the giddy delirium induced by the previous act. And, despite this stellar cast, there was a distracting amount of accent slippage.

Granted, these complaints sound like the gripes of a blue-haired matinee-goer when compared to the huge effort that must have gone into getting this show off of the ground. They are, however, a few of the details that could have turned this production from merely hysterical into absolute magic.

-- Adrienne Martini


Scottish Rite Temple
through July 26

In the annals of American theatre history should reside a chapter on the amateur musical theatre troupe. Such community-oriented arts groups have sprung up in all corners of the country, fueled by a genuine love of the theatre, of performance, of sharing their dreams with friends and family. The Violet Crown Players, a recent addition to the Austin theatre community, can claim their place in the long line of caring troupes dedicated to preserving one of the quintessential American art forms.

The Violet Crown Players' current effort, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music, a sloppily penned paean to Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night, illuminates much that is good, and bad, about community musical theatre. The entire company, costumed with gorgeous detail by Diana McAlpin and Sally Hipchen, exudes the warmth of earnest performers having a good time. Gay Gaughin-Hurst's Madame Armfeldt, the elder stateswoman in matters of love and acquisition, turns in a simple and luxuriant performance; Corey Rooney makes a lovely Anne Egerman, buoyant and innocent; Neal Gibson, as Fredik Egerman, husband to the young Anne, conveys the pain of an older man looking for a love to match his worldly ways, but trapped in a marriage of appearances; Michael Lucus turns in another humorous performance as the competing suitor and military nutcase, Count Carl-Magnus; and Kelley Zinge possesses seductive charm and wit as Petra, the Maid. The cast's voices vary in ability, but the play has the feel of an ensemble that cares about the material and wishes to present it as honestly as it can.

A Little Night Music plays at the Scottish Rite Temple, which boasts the oldest proscenium theatre in Austin. The production makes use of beautiful, original painted scenery from the 19th Century that has been carefully preserved: The theatre, to quote the playbill, is both "Austin's major theatrical museum piece [and] a practical working theatre." Such pride for the facility mirrors that of the performers for their play, but, in spite of its charm and sense of history, the theatre's age and quirks (and, indeed, all of the technical aspects of this play) work to mar this production. Squeaking drops, visible backstage areas, clumsy scene changes, and insufficient lighting detract from the purported fairy tale atmosphere. The somnambular tempo of the production makes the evening overly long, and first-time director Toni Bravo (one of Austin's best choreographers) seems trapped by the limitations of the production design: Actors upstage one another, and major moments receive odd placement, rendering them practically invisible. The bane of the modern musical -- actors wearing microphones -- further destroys the intimacy of this production. In such a small space, with such a gifted and understated orchestra, the choice to amplify rudely impedes this heartfelt musical.

-- Robi Polgar

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