Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Making sense of nonsense never so fun

Civic Theatre's latest production farce within farce

Wheat Williams

Whatzup Features Writer

Published May 18, 2022

Noises Off is a beloved piece of British comedy theater just reaching its 40th anniversary. 

London playwright Michael Frayn made the observation that when a company puts on a comedy, what happens backstage among the actors waiting in the wings is even wackier and more amusing than what happens onstage. Put that with the ancient theatrical device of the “play within a play” that everybody knows from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and in 1982 Noises Off was born, a “farce within a farce.”

This creates an existential conundrum for the theater reviewer: How can I evaluate good actors playing the roles of bad actors in a bad play, acting very badly until their own play collapses around them? What can I say about a good director directing a play about a bad director, directing a bad play badly until … you get the idea.

I hope you can have a look back to our May 5 issue, where Noises Off’s director John O’Connell told the story about this production, which was ready to hit the ground in early 2020, but had to be put off two years due to the pandemic, only to be brought back with an entirely different cast.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the staging of a fictional would-be “sex farce” entitled Nothing On, set in the early ’70s. It peripherally concerns “tax exiles,” very much a thing in the 1970s, whereby wealthy British artists would try to evade paying income tax by exploiting legal loopholes by living overseas. Artists would sneak home for a few days a year, hoping to avoid Inland Revenue coming down on them for 95 percent. (That’s also the subject of the Beatles’ tune “Taxman” and the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main St., but that’s another story.)

Getting lost in hilarity

You’ll just have to see this show to make sense of this nonsense, or to get a sufficient sense of the nonsense in order to just sit back and stop trying to make any sense of it altogether, which is where I ended up. Happily you will laugh, quite a bit, in the process. 

What it all comes down to is timing, and in this case the pratfalls and pranks are quite well choreographed and executed, to the best of the observer’s ability to judge things when they are flying fast and thick from every corner of the stage, or backstage, altogether. Absolutely crucial plot points hinge on plates of sardines which appear or don’t appear, expectedly or unexpectedly, rapidly unhinging the composure of the badly-drawn characters. Misdirections, as a rule, don’t really, but that adds to the comedy. If I had thought to track the pacing of the action barrelling along to the trai-wreck conclusion, I would be impressed, but I was having too much fun.

cast and crew shine through

We have to stop at this point and credit Civic Theatre’s tremendously engineered stage set, the two-story interior of a comfortable British Tudor manor, which between acts is deftly disassembled, pivoted, and reassembled by a crack stage crew to invert itself into the spartan backstage of a traveling theater production. 

It’s also telling that our audience’s greatest applause thundered out for the Civic Theatre stagehands after their elaborate scene-shifting ballet.

Bravo to Nan Durant and Jennifer Beineke and company. 

Oh, wait, the actors…

Now we’ll help you sort the list of Hoosiers deftly playing an evenly-balanced ensemble cast of hapless British West-End thespians from the 1970s.

Maggie Kole Hunter plays actress Dotty Otley, around whom all the petty jealousies and tantrums seem to revolve, who plays a character named Mrs. Clacket, the housemaid, who serves the sardines. (Watch the sardines.)

Aaron Mann is Lloyd Dallas, Nothing On’s director, at turns majesterial and aloof, but having as much to do with the production’s undoing as the cast members themselves.

Brock Graham plays leading man Garry Lejeune, who is air-headedly incoherent when he doesn’t have lines to deliver as his character Roger, the ineffectual instigator of a not-quite sex farce.

Brooke O’Mara plays a clueless, inflexible, and myopic young actress named Brooke Ashton, playing a character named Vicki, the blonde bombshell who works for British Inland Revenue, but mostly strikes poses in her underwear. (Special props to the Fort Wayne Civic Theater’s Wardrobe Department for being period-authentic, yet staying within the bounds of good taste.)

Emily Arata Grillo plays a likable, peacemaking actress named Belinda Blair, who plays a character named Flavia Brent, wife to playwright Phillip Brent, lately and secretly back from tax exile in Spain.

Joel Grillo is the actor Freddie Fellows, perhaps the most neurotic of the ensemble, who plays the aforementioned Phillip Brent, husband to Flavia.

Yes, if you’re scoring this cricket match, the actually married couple Emily Arato Grillo and Joel Grillo are playing non-married characters who play characters who are married. Joel Grillo explains in the program notes that he thanks Emily for “not killing him in the process.”

Carissa Brown plays Poppy Norton-Taylor, the sensible, long-suffering assistant stage manager, who is too sensible to play anybody else.

Scott Hess plays Timothy Allgood, the stage manager who is always running around trying to repair everything, never gets any sleep, and finds himself playing understudy every time a wayward actor entirely fails to appear onstage.

Joe Collins plays an over-the-hill, cheerfully alcoholic and somewhat deaf actor named Selsdon Mowbray, playing the character of The Burglar, and never able to deliver crucial punchlines.

And in the end, there’s nothing like a good plate of … sardines.

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