KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 28, 2018 – In the frenetic craziness of URI Theatre’s production of “Noises Off,” the art of disaster is put to the test.
Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” which opens Nov. 29 in the Robert E. Will Theatre on the Kingston Campus, is a play within a play about a troupe of has-been and never-were actors putting on a sex farce called “Nothing On.” From the first curtain, there is a feeling of comic foreboding. In the last rehearsal of “Nothing On,” lines are forgotten, entrances are flubbed, timing is off. By mid-production, philandering has frayed relationships and pranks, large and small, plague the show – all leading to a closing-night performance that literally is on its last legs.
“It’s a farce, so basically anything that can go wrong does go wrong,” says Ari Kassabian, a senior theater major, who plays the actor Brooke Ashton playing the character Vickie in “Nothing On.”
But the trick is getting it right. It’s seemingly as easy as falling down a flight of stairs.
Senior theater major Brooks Shatraw can attest. The Smithfield, Rhode Island resident plays actor Garry Lejeune, who plays Rogert Tramplemain in “Nothing On.” In the third act, with the wheels coming completely off, Tramplemain tumbles down those stairs – 14 steps in all – landing face- first at the bottom.
To perfect the fall, Shatraw worked with Max Ponticelli, a lecturer in the Theatre Department with an expertise in choregraphing fights and falls, breaking it down step by step. “I have to miss one of the steps with my foot, then use the railing and then smack into the wall and then twirl down,” says Shatraw. “I have to look like I’m out of control but still be in control so I don’t hurt myself.”
“It’s like a dance,” says director Chris Simpson. “He’s had to isolate each move, link them in combos and then link them together fluidly to get all the way to the bottom.”
And, of course, it had to be done without Shatraw breaking his neck. “My big thing with a show like this is safety,” says Mary Grace Moran, assistant scenic designer. “We had to make sure the stairs were carpeted to cushion the fall a little bit and the banister was solid to support his weight.”
Shatraw’s plunge is just a small part of the physical comedy that produces many of the laughs. Actors rush about, running through slamming doors or up and down stairs, wrestling with axes or whisky bottles, and carrying each other about. And central is the scenery, designed by Jeff Modereger, resident scenic designer at the University of Vermont.
The set is massive – two stories, three sets of stairs, eight doors. For the pivotal second act, where audiences see the chaotic backstage infighting of “Nothing On,” it actually pivots (thanks to three stagehands) – and again for the final act.
“This is about as big a set as any show that has a single set,” says Simpson, artistic director for The Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield, Rhode Island. “It’s as big as it gets.”
“The show dictates what the set has to do because the comedy is very specific,” says Modereger, who worked with Moran and URI resident tech director Jake Hegnauer to build the set. “The set is like a character. If it doesn’t work, there is no humor.”
Design for the set came from Modereger’s plans for URI Theatre’s 1992 production of “Noises Off.” The drawings were still in the URI scene shop, and Hegnauer, then assistant tech director, had worked on the original set. Construction started in mid-October, but actors didn’t get their first chance to rehearse on it until about two weeks ago.
Without the physical set, actors learned their blocking on a mock set of walls, doorways and stairs, drawn out in color-coded tape on the stage floor. “We spent two hours and took the ground plan and literally taped out every inch,” says stage manager Alyssa Frederick, a senior theater major from Groveland, Massachusetts.
“The hardest part was that there are two levels,” said Kassabian, of Wakefield, Rhode Island, “so some of the [taped] doors were in the same places as the doors on the second floor. We never remembered which doors to go through until we got the set.”
When it was unveiled, the set became the rehearsal, said senior Danny Greene, of Easton, Massachusetts, who plays Frederick Fellowes/Philip Brent. Simpson gave the ensemble cast of nine actors time to familiarize themselves with “every corner and danger.”
With a set of two floors, eight doors and three staircases and a play that feeds off the actors’ energy, some of the actors have had to do more than learn their characters, lines and blocking.
“Some of us have been going to the gym more. We are literally dripping sweat, especially after the second act,” says Kassabian, whose character executes a dash across the stage, up a set of stairs, and back across the second floor – carrying a cactus.
“The second act you never stop,” agrees Shatraw, who gets in a half-hour of cardio every day. “I’m running the entire time so I have to make sure I can get through it.”
The second act, when backstage shenanigans and tugs-of-war overshadow what’s going on onstage (off stage for the audience), is a “significant feat for an actor,” says Simpson. “In all the plays I’ve worked, it’s one of the most demanding, when everyone in the ensemble is basically constantly onstage one way or the other.”
“Noises Off” runs Nov. 29-Dec. 1 and Dec. 6-8 with shows starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Robert E. Will Theatre at the URI Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, on the Kingston Campus. On Dec. 2 and Dec. 9, shows begin at 2 p.m.
General admission is $20; $15 for seniors, URI faculty, staff and students. To purchase tickets, visit web.uri.edu/theatre, or call (401) 874-5843.