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Gerald Carpenter: SBCC Theatre Group Makes ‘Noises Off’

Opening Wednesday and running through March 22, the Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College will present the celebrated farce Noises Off by Michael Frayn in the revitalized Garvin Theater.

The production is under the direction of Rick Mokler, with sets and lighting by Patricia Frank, costumes by Pamela Shaw, and starring Jay Carlander, Ann Dusenberry, Sean Jackson, Jon Koons, Ed Lee, Janina Mason, Jenna Scanlon, Polly Firestone Walker and Raymond Wallenthin.

Noises Off, written in 1982, "follows both the onstage calamities and the backstage shenanigans of a woefully inept theatre troupe attempting to perform a sex comedy appropriately titled Nothing On. Flubbed lines, slammed doors and dropped trousers abound in this ... melee of theatrical mishaps."

Frayn got the idea for the play much earlier, in 1970, while he watched from the wings as a comedy of his called The Two of Us struggling to stay alive onstage. "It was funnier from behind than in front," Frayn recalled, "and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind."

Frayn's comedy, in short, is a backstage farce, a genre the British invented and brought to immediate perfection in 1671, with The Rehearsal by George Villiers (2nd Duke of Buckingham), in which a hapless company is attempting to mount a production of some heroic verse tragedy in the line of John Dryden's The Conquest of Granada. Poor Dryden, who didn't deserve it, comes in for quite a dunking in The Rehearsal, which pretty much killed off the heroic verse tragedy genre.

Later backstage comedies could never be as potent as the first one, and Frayn is well aware that his play, however deftly it skewers bad writing, will never be completely successful at keeping vulgur and unfunny comedies off the stage.

In most backstage comedies, the play within the play must be absurdly inferior to the play framing it. The title of the inner play, Nothing On, is at least a double entendre, and possibly a multiple one. "Nothin on," of course, can be heard as meaning "wearing no clothes," but it can also refer to the common English usage of the words which means "nothing going on" or "nothing will come of it" or, as we would say now, "not going to happen."

Anyway, from what we hear of Act One, Nothing On is a very bad play indeed, full of young girls in their underwear, cads making naughty suggestions, and characters popping in and out of doors. (Frayn, a good writer himself, has a flawless ear for bad writing.)

Part of what makes Noises Off if not unique, at least unusual, is that the actors struggling with their parts in Nothing On are by no means superior to the material they are grappling with. If you are looking for a playwright who retains a romantic affection for "theater folk," try Noël Coward; you won't find it in Frayn.

Noises Off previews at 7:30 p.m. this Wednesday and Thursday. Regular performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sundays. (The performance at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 9 will be live-captioned for the hearing-impaired.) Tickets to the previews are $16 for general, $13 for seniors and $8 for students; tickets to the Thursday evening shows and Sunday matinees are $22 for general, $17 for seniors and $12 for students; and tickets to Friday and Saturday evenings are $24 for general, $19 for seniors and $15 for students.

For information or reservations, call the Garvin Theatre box office at 805.965.5935, or purchase tickets online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own

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