The premise alone is remarkable: A not-so-talented, deeply dysfunctional theater company sets out to tour with a dumb sex farce called Nothing On. In Act One, we witness one hilariously ineffectual dress rehearsal through which we get to meet the cast and learn about some of their personal issues. Lloyd (Jay Carlander), the director, is the womanizer at the center of a love triangle involving the stage manager, Poppy (Jenna Scanlon), and the ingénue, Brooke (Janina Mason). Freddy (Raymond Wallenthin) and Belinda (Polly Firestone Walker) are both actors, although he is easily frightened and distractible. Theatre Group at SBCC regulars Jon Koons, Ann Dusenberry, and Ed Lee play other key members of the cast and crew for the show-within-the-show. The whole thing revolves — quite literally in this case, as the entire set is mounted on a carousel — around a reversal of the setting in Act Two, which takes place backstage during a matinee performance of Nothing On. In that act, what begins as a tense last 15 minutes until curtain rapidly escalates into a wickedly slapstick free-for-all. Act Three picks up the show again, 10 weeks later, and from the regular vantage point. By this time, the cast is over it, and much of the dialogue for Nothing On gets ad-libbed to cover mistakes.
I spoke with Rick Mokler at the Garvin last week about the experience of directing Michael Frayn’s modern comic masterpiece.
Noises Off is a very funny show. Are you having a good time working on it? It’s a mixture of fun and pure hell. The second half of Act Two is the single most difficult thing I’ve ever done as a director.
That’s the part when everyone is horsing around backstage while the show is supposedly going on the other side. Those must be difficult cues to remember since they are played through a wall. Definitely. The scene has to be completely memorized by every actor or it won’t work. And to begin with, we didn’t even have the wall! For the beginning of the rehearsal process, the actors were walking on tape — that’s all the set they had.
How long did it take to get it all down? It took much longer to stage Act Two than it took to do both the other acts put together. We worked for over 16 hours just on that. In terms of the time in preparation it demands, that scene compares very directly to a difficult dance number in a musical.
What other shows that you’ve done would you compare it to? It kind of reminds me of when we did The Buddy Holly Story. That show had all live music, and we were doing it before we had wireless microphones and pickups, so the whole thing depended on a bunch of cords. If you started to roll a platform to change the scene and any one of those cords pulled loose, there goes your sound. It made me very nervous to watch, and I feel the same way about Noises Off — I’m sitting up here watching and thinking that at any moment the whole thing could go off the rails.
What’s your biggest hope for this production? That nobody in the audience will even notice how complicated it was to create. We worked hard to make it happen, but I hope that once everyone is onstage, it plays easy, loose, and funny.
The Theatre Group at SBCC presents Noises Off at the Garvin Theatre Thursday, March 6-Saturday, March 22. Performances take place Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, call (805) 965-5935 or visit theatergroupsbcc.com.