September 24, 2013 Updated: September 24, 2013 at 12:15 pm
For those who have ever wondered what it's like backstage at the theater, "Noises Off" will answer some questions.
English playwright Michael Frayn's modern day farce will open the new theater season at the Fine Arts Center on Thursday.
"Noises Off" operates as a play within a play, with the actors playing actors. In it, a third-rate acting troupe is touring a farcical sex romp called "Nothing On" through regional theaters. When the actors aren't on stage missing cues, flubbing lines and searching for their motivation, they're backstage feuding, scheming and getting drunk and hysterical.
"This is not far off from the truth," says director Cory Moosman with a laugh. "I've often thought if audiences could see how a backstage runs, and what madness it can be at times, you could sell tickets to that."
The show is divided into three acts. In the first, the audience sees the company in its final dress rehearsal before taking the show on the road. In Act II, the set is turned around, so we see what happens behind the scenes. The show has now been out one month on the road, and life is clearly deteriorating for the actors and director. By the third act, when the set is turned once again to show the front of the house, the play and its members are in a shambles.
Two floors, eight doors, one working French window, one staircase, nine cast members and a set that turns 180 degrees. Twice. This is the recipe for classic farce.
"This is the funniest show ever written," says Scott RC Levy, artistic director of the FAC. "It really is a modern classic. It opened up the genius of farce."
Levy defines farce: "Based in reality. Absurd situations involving mistaken identities and slamming doors. And in this case, a whole bunch of sardines." He's referring to the plentiful plates of sardines that appear throughout the show.
"Theater that's inherently about theater is wildly popular for theaters to do," Levy says. "The structure of the piece is so inventive in a way. It goes back to 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' a play within a play."
The inspiration for the show hit Frayn as he stood off-stage during a 1970 performance of "The Two of Us," a farce he wrote for Lynn Redgrave. He found the behind the scenes antics funnier than the actual show, and he went with it. "Noises Off" opened on Broadway in 1983, and its 2001 revival won a Tony award.
"Mr. Frayn has invested the fictional actors with a rich assortment of quirks, almost certainly taken from real life," says critic Anita Gates in the New York Times.
Timing is everything in a show like this. And a good portion of its success relies on the rotating two-story set.
"The set is so much a character in this show," Moosman says.
"It's also the most complex comedy you could ever stage," he says. "I don't think anything's up there as far as complexity. A close one would be 'The 39 Steps,' 'Rumors' or 'Lend Me a Tenor.' But they're a ways behind. It's quite mad, actually."
Weight: 3,000 pounds
Size: 18 feet tall by 35 feet wide
Time it took to plan: Eight weeks
What it must do: Turn 180 degrees for the second and third acts.
How: It's built to look like an old English country house, and breaks into thirds. The center portion perches on an 18-foot-diameter turntable powered by skateboard wheels. It's not mechanized: The crew pushes it. The outer sections are on large platforms and roll and move backstage.
Will it work? "I would say it's going to work," says set designer Christopher L. Sheley, "though 10 minutes to turn the set around will be a trick. The crew has been in and they looked at me like I was crazy. It'll be the ultimate ballet backstage when the curtain is in. It's funny because it is keeping it in the spirit of the show. I wish there was some way we could record and show them spinning a house around."
Is it the biggest set at the Fine Arts Center? No, Sheley says, but it is the biggest set they've had to make turn around on stage. "The Producers" and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" were the biggest.
Finding its motivation: "There's so many points in the show where actors need to enter and exit the stage where the audience can see them but they can't see each other," he says. "It becomes almost like a maze or a fun house. That's a lot of the funny. And the chasing each other up and down the stairs, it's almost like a video game. It (the set) needs to support the physicality of the show and help tell the jokes."
Who: Fine Arts Center's Theatre Company
Playwright: Michael Frayn
Cast: Birgitta DePree, Sammie Joe Kinnett, Joye Cook-Levy, Max Ferguson, Sammy Gleason, Michael Miller
Director: Cory Moosman
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with two 10-minute intermissions
When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Thursday, and runs 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 20
Where: Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.
Tickets: $18-$20 Thursday, then $32-$42, $15 students; 634-5583, csfineartscenter.org
Something else: Pay What You Can night, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Contact Jennifer Mulson at 636-0270.