On Stage

On Stage

Katy Cryns’ character Jean sums up the encroachment of technology on our daily lives when she reflects: “When we have a cell phone, we have to be there to answer. But the more we’re ‘there’ the more we disappear.”

Santa Paula Theater Center’s Main Stage production of Sarah Ruhl’s contemporary play Dead Man’s Cell Phone shows us how simple life could be if we eliminated the distractions, even just a little, and looked at the person sitting next to us, someone who might be beaming a look of lifelong love our way.

At first look we may think Gordon (Brian Robert Harris) is burning a hateful stare into Jean across a crowded café, loathing her for having taken the last serving of lobster bisque. But, Jean finds out later — when it’s too late and life is over — that look was actually a man falling in love. Jean, meanwhile, was too busy passing Gordon an irritated glance for his constantly ringing cell phone.

And then (spoiler alert) a funny thing happens. Turns out Gordon’s dead. Well, it’s not funny so much as it serves as the catalyst for a lot of funny events, including Jean taking his offending cell phone and answering his calls, hoping to help right his life.

Jean is soon at Gordon’s family dinner table with a set of dysfunctional characters straight out of a Mommy Dearest nightmare. Leading the pack is Kathleen Silverman’s flawless iron lady, whose idea of charm is to tell Jean, “You’re very comforting. Like a small casserole.” Since Gordon’s widow Hermia (the always excellent Vivian Latham) spends most of her time drunk, it leaves the door open for Gordon’s brother, Dwight (Ron Flesher), to bring some life into Jean’s daily existence.

Dwight is the opposite of all things transitional and technological, a believer in the permanence of paper and books. When we later see the budding couple in Dwight’s stationery store, Jean is seen sniffing paper with a sincere ecstasy. She decides on a certain type of paper. “I’d like to live in a house made of this one.” Jean and Dwight agree: There are certain experiences that technology robs from us.

And right on time, the dead man’s cell rings.

Though Gordon describes Jean as “nondescript,” Katy Cryns, portrayal is anything but basic and pedestrian. Her performance seems strongest when she’s on the spot and has to come up with a quick fib to console a late friend or relative, and that happens a lot. Jean’s charm comes out right up to the end when she offers a trafficker of human body parts a kidney-shaped lamp she picked out herself. Cryns’ infectious smile glows throughout like one of designer Gary Richardson’s klieg lights.

That smile carries her through as Jean learns the diabolical nature of Gordon’s vocation, which was, shall we say, the business of breaking down the human experience into nuts and bolts, nameless parts without consequence for a profit. Once she gets clued in, Jean goes to all lengths to right Gordon’s wrongs.

And even during the performance come little reminders that, though life is going on all around, it won’t kill us to maintain focus for a couple of hours. And oh, the irony of such a contemporary message in such a charming old building. When a distraction penetrates its walls — a plane buzzing into the local airport, kids at play in the adjacent park, a motorcycle rumbling down Seventh Street setting off car alarms — we’re reminded that distraction waits everywhere, but so does the potential for love.


Dead Man’s Cell Phone through March 16. Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 South Seventh St., Santa Paula, www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.

On Stage

On Stage

 

Michael Frayn’s award-winning 1982 farce Noises Off receives a robust, intimate and terrifically funny treatment in a new production from the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. In the deft hands of veteran director Kenneth Albers, an ensemble of nine actors fills the evening with silliness, hijinks and a barrage of physical comedy.

Mr. Frayn’s play, a classic example of the genre, is filled with misdirection, misunderstanding, seemingly random relationships and events, and lots and lots of sardines. Added to this unlikely mélange is the fact that Noises Off presents its audience with characters who comprise the cast of an ill-fated touring production of another farce, aptly titled Nothing On, as that show stumbles its way toward opening night and the tour beyond. Actors take on two roles each, performing as their characters in Noises Off and also as the characters they will play onstage in their production of Nothing On.

Noises Off can be a tough show for any theater company to produce, even one with a track record of successes such as Rubicon’s. Mr. Frayn’s script likely contains as many written stage directions as spoken words, and the play’s second act requires that the entire set be reversed so the action may be viewed from behind the scenes of a mid-run performance of the show’s play within a play. The difficulties of building such a set make worthy productions of Noises Off few and far between.

An experienced professional cast of stage veterans brings an air of authenticity and grace to a play that thrives on the chaos it creates. Eric Curtis Johnson uses his lanky frame beautifully, giving his portrayal of love-struck and maniacally jealous Garry Lejeune a hilarious physicality evocative of the best of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The object of his character’s affection, Dotty Otley, is played with sly charm by Robynn Rodriguez. Played with equal parts authority and smarminess by William Langan, Nothing On’s hapless director Lloyd Dallas works tirelessly to repair his disintegrating production, dysfunctional cast and his own houndish behavior. The night’s second act features his feeble attempts to woo Poppy Norton-Taylor, the production’s stage manager (earnestly and heartwarmingly played by Joanna Strapp in her Rubicon debut) and the show’s ingénue (Alyson Lindsay as an infectiously bubbly Brooke Ashton who knows only her lines, her cues, her marks and how to hit them).

The cast is rounded out by Andrew Borba in a dapper turn as Frederick Fellowes, Catherine Lynn Davis as the earnest and maternal Belinda Blair, Rudolph Willrich as the affable but perpetually inebriated Selsden Mowbray, and Toby Tropper as the dedicated, if sleep-deprived, Tim Allgood. The ensemble shines, showing teamwork and an attention to detail in every movement and in the delivery of every punchline. The demanding physical humor of the second act is handled expertly and seemingly effortlessly by this cast, a tremendous accomplishment in itself, given the complexity of Mr. Frayn’s comic masterpiece. The coziness of the Rubicon Theatre adds to the atmosphere, placing the audience almost directly in the laps of the troupe as it runs, climbs, crawls, swings and swears its way through Nothing On, giving the entire night’s action a closeness often hard to duplicate in larger venues.

The two-story set has no fewer than a dozen entrances and doors that must withstand the requisite slamming and re-slamming (291 all told, according to the show’s producers). Marvelously fitted into the Rubicon’s thrust stage, the expertly crafted set by scenic and lighting designer Thomas S. Giamario transforms nearly effortlessly.  Even the smallest touches here are professionally executed: Kenny Hobbs’ sound design is spot on, and Marcy Froehlich’s costumes are sharp and lively. T. Theresa Scarano managed the difficult task of the show’s many properties, from a period-perfect television to the countless plates of sardines.

Even the show’s printed program is thoughtfully produced, offering up a fictional playbill for Nothing On (definitely worth a read, with full bios for the cast of the play within the play and a hilarious article about the nature of the British sex comedy) and a well-written piece about the history of farce by William Keeler, the show’s dramaturge. It is all of these details, combined with first-rate performances and a top-of-the-line production team, that make the Rubicon’s production of Noises Off one not to miss.

Just remember to leave the newspaper, and take the sardines. 


Noises Off through Feb. 23. Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. For more information, call 667-2900 or visit www.rubicontheatre.org.

 

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