Saturday, April 1, 2017

Fools' Gold

Unlike the title of a certain Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, truth never dies. The old adage that "laughter is the best form of medicine" came roaring back to life this year on April Fools' Day. It didn't long for a fast and furious string of politically-inspired memes to fill Facebook's feeds. Among my favorites?
  • "Trump abstains from lying on April Fools' Day. A one day moratorium. Flags at half staff."
  • "Trump announces that as soon as he's done bringing coal jobs back, he plans to get Fotomat workers back to developing film."
  • "Trump insults Chinese president, calling General Tso a chicken."
  • "Air Force One has crashed in Palm Beach, Florida. All passengers are dead included POTUS. Just now!!!"
Great minds and great artists rose to the challenge in true carpe diem fashion. Saluting the new trend of using quotation marks to legitimize alternative facts, former Secretary of LaborRobert Reich, posted the following message on Facebook:
In a tweet early this morning Donald Trump expressed "profound regret" for "concocting the story that Obama spied on me" and "for any hurt he has caused the former president because of my mindless and selfish behavior." He also hinted at a future apology involving "a more profound and significant wrong, for which I am totally responsible."

When asked about the tweet at this morning’s briefing, Sean Spicer broke down in tears. Moments later, Steven Bannon announced he was turning in his resignation because "I can’t work for a decent human being." The New York Times calls it "a new Trump," and speculates "this is the president we’ve been waiting for -- someone able to take responsibility for his own actions and recognize the difference between truth and falsehood, right and wrong."

I may have been too hasty in my condemnation of Donald Trump. He has been in office only ten weeks, and is still capable of learning and changing. I think we all owe him the chance to become a truly great president.
In a move guaranteed to delight his fans, Berkeley Breathed announced a joint venture with Bill Watterson.

But without doubt, the honor for the best April Fools' gag of 2017 goes to George Takei for his shocking announcement that he would run for office against Republican Congressman (and contemptible fool) Devin Nunes in 2018!

* * * * * * * * *
One of the golden rules of performing onstage is that "dying is easy, comedy is hard."

The good folks at San Francisco Playhouse are currently presenting a new production of that rip-roaring farce, Noises Off. Although Michael Frayn's 1982 play turns 35 this year, it shows no sign of aging. If anything, it seems to have gotten even better over the years.

Patrick Russell and Monique Hafen in a scene from Noises Off
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

While not necessarily on a par with three-dimensional chess, Noises Off offers theatre lovers a master class in how to create, plot, and populate an old-fashioned, door-slamming farce. Using the old device of staging a "play within a play," Frayn concocted a cast of ridiculously conflicted characters (as well as a group of randy fictional actors who portray those characters) and let everything that could possibly go wrong -- go spectacularly wrong. For example:
  • The cockney housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett, is described as "a hospitable, though slow-witted and slow-moving, chatterbox." She is portrayed by Dotty Otley, a television star whose bio indicates that she is known or "her notable portrayals of Mrs. Hackett, Fru Sackett, and Mrs. Duckett."
  • The character of Roger Tramplemain (a real estate agent) is portrayed by Gary Lejeune, who is described as a solid actor who is dating Dotty, is utterly incapable of finishing an unscripted sentence, constantly stutters, is prone to jealousy, and is the proud recipient of the Laetitia Daintyman Medal for Violence.
  • Philip Brent is a tax-evading homeowner who lives outside the country for most of the year and is portrayed by Frederick Fellowes (a handsome, vain, lunkhead who recently performed in the all-male version of The Trojan Women and suffers from nosebleeds when exposed to violence and blood).
Nanci Zoppi and Craig Marker in a scene from Noises Off
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Frayn was inspired to write Noises Off after standing backstage and watching Lynn Redgrave perform in a British farce. Realizing that the audience had no idea what kind of chaos occured out of their sight, he structured Noises Off so that each scene shows the first act of a play called Noises On unraveling in a different (fictional) theatre.
  • The first act of Noises Off takes place during a technical rehearsal at the Grand Theatre in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. At this point, the actors are having trouble remembering their lines and are constantly making mistakes involving the placement of various theatrical props which are required for certain bits of stage business.
  • The second act of Noises Off takes place a month later at the Theatre Royal in Ashton-under-Lyne during a Wednesday matinee but, instead of seeing the set as it would normally present to the audience, theatregoers view the action as it takes place behind the set. By now, the friction and resentment that has built up between cast members who are either drunk, late, spiteful, or sexually involved with each other, has reached a critical temperature.
  • The third act of Noises Off takes place near the end of the show's 10-week run at the Municipal Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees. The director (who has been screwing both the air-headed ingenue and the now-pregnant assistant stage manager) has returned to check in on the show. He quickly learns what can happen on a night when bad timing is everything.
Monique Hafen, Johnny Moreno, and Monica Ho in a 
scene from Noises Off (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

Directed with gusto by Susi Damilano on a revolving set designed by George Maxwell with costumes by Abra Berman, this production benefits immensely from the sound design by Cliff Caruthers. Kimberly Richards gets steady laughs as Dotty Otley, who is plagued by sardines, telephone cords, and a failing memory. The only other character who doesn't go completely to pieces is stage manager and emergency understudy Tim Allgood (Greg Ayers), whose lack of sleep often causes him to place key props in the wrong person's hands.

Monique Hafen is obviously having a blast playing Brooke Ashton (the dumb blonde whose good looks may be her strongest asset), with Monica Ho getting a sympathy vote as Poppy Norton-Taylor, the assistant stage manager who has been knocked up by the show's horny director. As the tax-evading couple that lives abroad, Nanci Zoppi brings a nice sense of sturdiness to Belinda Blair while Craig Marker is absolutely hilarious as Frederick Fellowes (doubling onstage as Philip Brent and a mysterious sheikh).

Nancy Zoppi, Craig Marker, Kimberly Richards, and Patrick Russell
in a scene from Noises Off (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

Old hands on deck include Richard Louis James as the aging drunk, Selsdon Mowbray; Johnny Moreno as the lecherous director, Lloyd Dallas; and Patrick Russell, doing superb work as the randy realtor, Garry Lejeune. It's interesting to note that, over the years, Frayn has deleted certain references that became anachronistic and added bits of business that strengthen the play. When a film adaptation of Noises Off was released in 1992, I thought it desperately missed the mark for one simple reason: Just as some actors take pride in being "stage animals," Noises Off is meant for an audience that appreciates live theatre.

That may well be why I enjoyed this production more than others I've seen in the past. The first time someone experiences Noises Off, it's hard enough to follow what seems to be the plot of Noises On in the chaos that leads to so much physical comedy (during my initial encounter with Frayn's farce I couldn't understand why anyone would gave a shit about a plate of sardines). However, this is one instance where familiarity breeds respect, rather than contempt. The opportunity to witness the concentration and craft that go into "getting right" so many things that are "going wrong" gives an audience a much deeper understanding of an actor's skill set and a better appreciation of what ensemble work truly entails.

Richard Louis James, Monica Ho, and Johnny Moreno
in a scene from Noises Off (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

Performances of Noises Off continue at the San Francisco Playhouse through May 13 (click here for tickets).

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