William Peace Theatre director Wade Newhouse stretches out face down on the floor of the dimly lit Leggett Theater on the second floor of Main Building at William Peace University in Raleigh, NC. His face is smushed against a frilly couch pillow. Nine disheveled college actors drape themselves across the first couple of rows. The stinging smell of makeup remover and sweat permeates.
Scenic designer Sonya Leigh Drum touches up paint on lacerated doors and chafed floors, while a quartet of assistant stage managers wade through a stage full of rubble: mounds of mangled papers, crushed boxes, broken windows, disregarded doorknobs, shattered flowerpots, knotted bedsheets, discarded couch cushions, an entanglement of phone cords, and about one hundred rubber sardines.
Noises Off!, which premiered in 1982, is a staple of both community and professional theaters on both sides of the Atlantic, having enjoyed three productions on Broadway and two in London. A 1992 film adaptation, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Carol Burnett and Michael Caine, received mixed reviews. It is simply too theatrical.
This three-act play by English playwright Michael Frayn is textbook farce. Slamming doors, sexual misconduct, plot twists, and absurd comedy abound.
Act One drops in on a dress rehearsal for the fictional British farce Nothing On. The hopelessly unprepared cast is bewildered by entrances, exits, and a multitude of props. Temperamental director Lloyd Dallas plays a game of stop-and-fix to salvage what he can before tomorrow’s big opening.
For Act Two, the entire set (a two-story British getaway cottage) is reversed, allowing a peek backstage during a matinee performance one month later. Cast relationships have begun to deteriorate and we get a “dumb show” of the goings-on behind the scenes.
Finally, the set rotates again; and Act Three visits a performance near the end of Nothing On‘s 10-week U.K. run. The script is almost entirely abandoned, as jilted lovers sabotage one another, props are destroyed, and the show devolves into utter chaos.
The challenges for an actor are myriad: British dialect, innumerable lines, razor-sharp timing, slapstick, and a constant shift between two roles (each Noises Off! cast member plays an actor who, in turn, plays a character in the play-within-a-play, Nothing On. This piece is not for actors with a weak constitution.
“It’s a training program. We needed a teachable play,” he says. “One for drama students to get feedback from an audience.”
A large senior class needed the opportunity to sharpen their farcical chops before graduation. This crop was not around for 2009’s Scapine or 2011’s A Flea in Her Ear. Several appeared in last season’s Twelfth Night, which is comedic, but does not require the razor-sharp comic calculations of Frayn’s play.
“[The cast] need to learn to trust themselves,” Newhouse continues. “They already trust each other. They problem-solved together during rehearsals. I’m just there to help find the beats — the pauses, the give-and-take. They each invented their own distinct characters.”
But what is the take-away for students? “When they get to graduate school, they need to be able to share stories about what they learned on a show and what they had to fix,” says Newhouse.
The cast are already preparing to describe that process. Nathan Hamilton (as the delicate Freddy Fellowes, who plays both tax-dodger Philip Brent and an Arab Sheikh) says that his biggest challenge has been “getting it properly wrong. Freddy s empty and anxious, but the character he plays is more aware and alert.”
Learning the lines for this play is arguably challenging. Hamilton points out that “each line has three variations, one for each of the acts, and getting them right is hard.”
Brenna Coogan (as the sensible Belinda Blair, who plays posh wife Flavia Brent) has a similar reflection. “When I did Twelfth Night last year, I only had four lines. Now it’s nonstop. Now that I’ve got the lines down, I’m working on being funny without trying to be funny.”
Dustin Walker (as the inarticulate Garry Lejeune, who plays real estate agent Roger Tramplemain) also appeared in Twelfth Night, but with a more talkative role: Sir Andrew Aguecheek. But the award for Biggest Switch goes to Mitchell Mulkey (as the flustered Tim Allgood who serves as stage manager and handyman). Mulkey played Fred Phelps in November’s The Laramie Project at Peace.
“I really had to shake off the drama and work closely on timing,” he says. “This play is cleverly written and it gets funnier as it goes. And what you see me do in Act Three isn’t what you saw in Act One.”
Bobby Simcox (as the demanding ladies-man Lloyd Dallas, who directs Nothing On) is similarly concerned about a shift from The Laramie Project’s serious subject matter (the 1998 murder of gay 21-year-old Matthew Shepard). “Comedy isn’t my thing,” he says. “But Wade [Newhouse] understands comedy. I’ve really watched how Wade directs our show to figure out how my character directs his show.”
Sai Graham (as the drunken Selsdon Mowbray, who plays the hard-of-hearing Burglar) observes that “I’m acting the opposite of myself. [Selsdon] is old, confused, and drunk. I’m none of those things. At first, I had no idea why I was in this show. But this cast is so dedicated and I’ve gotten a lot of support. I’ve focused on the physical aspects of the character — especially trying not to seem drunk.”
Hannah Marks (as the weary Dotty Otley, who plays cockney housekeeper Mrs. Clackett) says the hardest element of the show was prop handling, a complaint shared by her character, Dotty. “I can’t remember where all the plates of sardines go,” she says. “We have four sheets posted on the wall backstage that are just for sardine locations. If I walk out without one, we’re in trouble. It affects everybody’s movements.”
Physical comedy comes easily for Marks, but one skills was initially elusive: the almost-silent second act. “The mime in Act Two was a challenge. I hadn’t done that before, but I surprised myself,” Marks confesses.
Noises Off! was a smoother ride for Mary Lynn Bain (as the oblivious Brooke Ashton, who plays seductive business associate Vicki). Comedy comes easily for her. She says of her dramatic turn as Viola in Twelfth Night: “Viola was not funny. I was worried that I wasn’t getting laughs until I realized that I needed to play it with more honesty. This is completely different. I have to earn those laughs,” says Bain.
The tightrope of drama vs. comedy is also walked by Sarah Jones (as the emotional Poppy Norton-Taylor, employed as assistant stage manager and understudy). “This is a dramatic role in a comedy. I try to convey as much as I can with less dialogue than most of the cast has,” she says.
Some of the cast had more experience with British dialect than others, and it showed during the dress rehearsal. Sarah Jones perfected her cockney in Clue: The Musical and simply adapted that style for the slightly more posh Poppy.
Nathan Hamilton had worked this accent before, so simply had to brush it off and polish it up, while Sai Graham turned to YouTube for guidance.
Like Nothing On, this production has two understudies standing by in case of illness or disastrous injury: Rosie Manla and Spencer Nunn. If one inch of Jeff A.R. Jones’ fight choreography is missed, broken bones are not out of the question.
As of Tuesday’s dress rehearsal a few hinges were, understandably, still squeaky. Newhouse asserts that “they’d been sharing ideas about the ending scene, which we’ve still been fixing. It’s too blocky — not organic enough — and has changed since yesterday. It has to look new every time.”
This production’s biggest struggle, which is the same as the play-within-a-play, Nothing On, is getting props in place at the right time. “I’m not worried about the cast. I’m worried about all the pieces. But we got it right tonight,” says Newhouse.
Tuesday’s small invited audience was enthusiastic in their laughter and applause. Lighting designer Stevan Dupor aptly contrasts between the shadowy backstage area of Act Two with the bright, show-ready lighting of Acts One and Three.
The technical highlight is Sonya Drum’s set, built by technical director David Jensen. A proscenium stage is traditionally needed for this show, which requires a cutaway of a fully furnished two-story cottage, complete with staircase, bay window, and seven slamming doors. Adding to the challenge of such a tall set is the requirement that it rotate 180 degrees. Twice. The Leggett Theater set is necessarily reduced in scale, but not in detail.
Property master Tim Domack’s props are countless and appropriate for the piece, as are Rachel Pottern Nunn’s 1980s-inspired costumes, which require daily repairs for stunt-related damage.
It is an admirable decision for William Peace University’s theater department to challenge its students with this material. Sink or swim, it is bound to be an invaluable learning experience for this crop of young actors.
Tuesday’s promising dress rehearsal suggests that some Olympic-level swimming is going to take place this weekend and next. Their work is as good as any community theater in the Triangle, if not better. It is strongly recommended that you come enjoy the hilarious work of these comedic athletes-in-training.
William Peace Theatre presents NOISES OFF at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17, 18, 24, and 25 and 2 p.m. Feb. 26 in the Leggett Theater on the second floor of Main Building at William Peace University, 15 E. Peace St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.
BOX OFFICE: 919-508-2051 or https://www.eventbrite.com/e/noises-off-tickets-31270873023?aff=erelexpmlt.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gSGgEo_fmo.
Noises Off! (1982 Hammersmith, 1983 Broadway, 2000 West End, and 2001 and 2016 Broadway Revival farce): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/2894/noises-off (Samuel French, Inc.), http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Noises-Off.aspx (official website for the 2016 Broadway Revival), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/noises-off-6602 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noises_Off (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: https://www.bard.org/study-guides/noises-off-study-guide (Utah Shakespeare Festival).
Michael Frayn (English playwright and screenwriter: https://www.faber.co.uk/author/michael-frayn/ (Faber & Faber author’s page), https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/michael-frayn (British Council | Literature), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/michael-frayn-7726 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0292450/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Frayn (Wikipedia).
Noises Off! (1992 film): http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/19466/Noises-Off/ (Turner Classic Movies), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105017/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noises_Off_%28film%29 (Wikipedia).
Wade Newhouse, Ph.D. (director and associate professor of English at William Peace University): http://www.peace.edu/profiles/wade-newhouse-ph-d/ (William Peace University bio) and https://www.facebook.com/wade.newhouse (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.