By May S. Ruiz
Imagine a hapless group of actors gamely putting on a production aptly titled ‘Nothing On,’ from an abysmal material as each of their personal drama gets in the way and you have one screwball of a play that is as insanely hilarious as it is eerily true to life.
This is Michel Frayn’s joyfully out-of-control British farce, ‘Noises Off,’ and will be on stage at A Noise Within (ANW) from Saturday, April 21 to Sunday, May 20, 2018. Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, it features most of the original cast from the play’s previous productions.
“‘Noises Off’ is truly one of our signature productions, with audience members returning to see it two or more times,” says Elliott. Rodriguez-Elliott adds, “Everything about the deft physical and verbal interplay between actors is ideal for our focus on ensemble work.”
First produced by ANW in their Glendale location, it was hugely popular that they brought it back another year. When they moved to Pasadena they presented it during their first season as an add-on production on a limited run.
Continues Rodriguez-Elliott, “It’s been about six or seven years since we last did it. For our 25th year anniversary, just for fun, we asked people what shows we had done that they would like to see again and ‘Noises Off’ got the most votes.
However, ‘Noises Off’ was doing a big production in London then so we couldn’t get the rights to it to mount it in time for our anniversary season. Fortunately, we were able to last year. And since we still have the same cast and they’re playing the same characters they did in the first two productions, we didn’t have to spend as much time to prepare for it.”
Elliott also discloses, “We’ve put off remounting ‘Noises Off,’ because we didn’t have the technical ability to put it on a spinning stage. We really wanted to remount it this year so we decided to redesign the set. In the first act the audience is watching the front of the set, in the second act the action takes place at the back of the set, and the third act is again the front of the set. Because of that, it needed to be presented on its own and not as part of a repertory.”
“It is one of the funniest farce, if not the funniest, ever written,” pronounces Elliott. “It’s a love letter to the theatre because it’s essentially about all of the things that can go wrong when people are trying to put a production together. For actors it’s especially close to the heart because we’ve all gone through some version of it. Michael Frayn is so brilliant in creating comic timing and sidesplitting situations. It’s really a work of genius.”
“It’s a repertory group rehearsing a play that’s about to open the next night and they’re not ready,” explains Rodriguez-Elliott. “In the first act, we are observing the colorful characters who are part of a company – there’s one actor who isn’t terribly bright, one who has a temper, another is an alcoholic who gets lost and they can’t find him. In the second act, the set turns and you’re watching them in a performance of ‘Nothing On’ from the back stage perspective so you see them as they make their entrance.”
“This is happening as they’re in the middle of the tour,” Elliott interjects. “By the second act they’ve been together for about a month and half. Everything that could possibly go awry, as personalities clash, has gone awry. The two leads are having an affair and one of them refuses to go on stage and it gets worse from there. It’s just insane!”
Rodriguez-Elliott continues, “By the third act, when the set is turned once more to the front, it’s hell in a handbasket. They’ve been touring for six months and by then some of them aren’t talking to each other so it becomes another whole new level of disaster.”
“When we were first rehearsing it, people who had done this production in the past were telling me ‘You’re going to have such a good time; audiences just die watching this play,” recalls Elliott. “There were so many people telling me that, that I began to get spooked that we’ll be jinxed shortly because I thought, ‘Surely our production can’t be as funny as they kept saying. The expectation was too much.’ But once we got out there, the audiences just went wild and it was infectious. You were having such a great time because the audience was as well. And it turned out to be exactly what people had been prognosticating all along. It’s probably the most fun I’d ever had on stage.”
Illustrates Elliott, “I play the role of the director and most of the time the cast doesn’t know if it’s Geoff, the director, or Lloyd, the character I play, who’s talking. Or if it’s Jeremy, the actor, who’s talking to them or the Frederick character he’s playing. Apollo Dukakis, in the role of an older actor Selsdon, calls his lines exactly as Apollo does. It’s spooky.”
“And here’s an interesting bit of trivia,” says Rodriguez-Elliott. “Michael Frayn was watching a play he had written being rehearsed. He sat backstage for a bit and he thought what was happening there was more interesting than what was going on onstage. That was the impulse for him to write ‘Noises Off.’”
“It was a Lynn Redgrave play that was being rehearsed,” Elliott elucidates. “And he thought there was more drama going on backstage. One of the endearing things about this play is that all of these actors are such survivalists they would do almost anything to make their entrance, to keep the show going. They’re taking axes at each other but they’ll drop them when they have to make an entrance. And it’s true, the show must go on. This is that to the hilt, it’s so sweet.”
“The beauty of a rep company is the familiarity you have with the rest of the cast,” Elliott begins to say. “And the play is all about that – people who have been together and have worked together for a long time. That is so relatable. We’ve all been in productions where someone misses an entrance, or something’s gone wrong and people backstage are troubleshooting,” Rodriguez-Elliott finishes for him.
“One of the reasons I think this was a very popular production is that we really concentrated on finding the honesty, the authenticity of the situations theatre people work in,” clarifies Elliott. “We didn’t approach it as a send-up. It’s not only incredibly funny but we have sympathy for all these people. We recognize all these people, all the drama and the group dynamics that we’ve all been a part of.”
“The play they’re in is terrible and they are nobly putting on a show that doesn’t even make sense. But they’re trying hard to make it work and are truly investing in it. There’s this one character who’s not the sharpest tool in the shed and even when the world is exploding she’s still doing what she has rehearsed,” chuckles Rodriguez-Elliott.
Elliott declares, “You can feel the joy in the room because the actors are having fun and the audience is in it with them. The actors themselves are laughing when they get backstage because of the wonderfully infectious audience reaction.”
ANW has just announced the theme of the 2018-2019 season, ‘Let Me in.’ Elliott describes, “It’s about the fundamental human desire to be included, to be accepted. All the plays are about people struggling for that and the things that happen to them and those around them as they strive to have a door open. It’s a very timely issue. We all want to be acknowledged, to not be ignored or be treated as something other than being a part of the human race. Whether it’s Don Quixote of ‘Man of La Mancha’, Dorian Gray, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Othello, Wingfield family of ‘Glass Menagerie,’ or Jason of ‘Argonautika.’ That’s the common vein running in all these plays.
‘Man of La Mancha’ will be another play that will run solo, not in repertory. It will play middle of August through early September. That was a big hit for us when we did it this season and this was an opportunity to bring the show back for those who didn’t get to see it or would like to see it again. It’s the same production and will have the same cast.
The show had been a tremendous experience for us. We had a number of people in the cast who had never worked with us before because they were more musical theatre people. So for them to be able to approach it as actors was something novel and extraordinary for them to do. When we reached out to them to tell them we were bringing it back and asked if they wanted to return for it, everyone answered within twelve hours.
That was pretty much how our resident artists responded to our remount of ‘Noises Off.’ Although the themes of the two plays couldn’t be any more different, audiences, nevertheless, will feel a strong reaction to each.”
It is the contagious feeling and exuberant spirit that we will experience that make ‘Noises Off’ as uproariously brilliant as it is unabashedly zany. Prepare to laugh till your sides hurt.