The abiding appeal of Noises Off, Michael Frayn's 1982 — and since revised — farce about staging a farce, isn't easily reduced to one single aspect. It's not just the multilayered contrivance of a play within a play. Or the guilty pleasure of watching a dramatic train wreck unfold. Or the way it shifts 180 degrees to reveal the backstage dynamic that audience members so rarely get to see. It's the combination of all those and more.
"Many people feel that it is the best comedy ever written," says William Marlowe. "And the strength of the show is that it constantly surprises you. You just never quite know what's coming around the bend."
Marlowe, who heads the drama department at Spokane Falls Community College, is directing a new production of Noises Off at the Spokane Civic Theatre. This play has been on his "bucket list" for years, he says, but its set demands couldn't be accommodated by the 14-foot proscenium on the SFCC stage. The opportunity to perform it on the Civic's main stage provided him not only with the necessary space, but the theater's customary pull of acting talent during the casting phase.
"Two years ago, I directed The Three Musketeers at the Civic Theatre and had a great turnout. And I thought, you know, this is a smaller show, I hope I have a good turnout. My gosh, I had 55 people audition. So I really got to pick from the best of the talent in Spokane. If a director can get the right cast, 70 percent of his job is already done. And I'm really feeling that way with this cast."
The resulting group of players is a mix of faces both fresh and familiar. Jerry Sciarrio and Gary Pierce, who play Lloyd Dallas and Selsdon Mowbray, respectively, fall into the latter category. Dallas is the volatile and priapic director of the play's nested door-slamming, pants-dropping farce called Nothing On, and Mowbray is a hard-of-hearing souse whose better years are well behind him.
Just imagining those two characters might be enough to warrant a few giggles, but there are seven more to round out the dysfunctional ensemble: the aging TV star Dotty Otley (played by Audrie Pursch), tongue-tied leading man Garry Lejeune (Jack Fogarty), self-involved ingenue Brooke Ashton (Rushele Herrmann), hypersensitive understudy Poppy Norton (Mikyla Bordner), hemophobic Frederick Fellowes (Kyle Ross), breezy Belinda Blair (Laticia Brannon) and agitated stage manager Tim Allgood (Samuel Peters). Some of the actors have studied with Marlowe at SFCC, and most have had only minor local theatrical roles to date, making them fairly new to the Spokane stage.
"The thing that's so wonderful" about Noises Off being an envelope for Nothing On, says Marlowe, "is that you get to see [the characters] in three different incarnations through the course of the rehearsal and then the tour. And then you have that delicious Act Two, where you get to see what's going on from behind the scenes, which is really insightful on the part of the playwright, who got the idea from watching a farce from backstage. It's just a very, very clever device."
It's also the reason why Frayn's play can be such a treat for the actors themselves. Noises Off offers them a lighthearted, self-referential way to showcase what goes into putting on this show and others like it.
"Our job as actors is to make what we do look easy. And the audience has no idea of the heartache, the difficulty, the struggle to learn lines, the physical demands of the role, doing a show on a set with three different staircases — there's a lot of stuff," says Marlowe. "So the audience really gains a much greater appreciation of the art and craft of live theater performance. Also, I think they walk away with a greater understanding of what the art form is really like."
In this particular production, Marlowe says there's more for audiences than a comedic object lesson in the occasional messiness and absurdity of the artistic process:
"I think they're going to really love this exquisite set that Matt Egan has designed. The stage left wall is done in a beautiful representation of an old stone wall, and it really has that English country estate quality to it.
"And, of course, Jan Wanless always does an amazing job with her costuming. There's all kinds of things — pants that rip, shirts that rip off and," he says, unsuccessfully curbing the urge to chuckle, "people spontaneously in their underwear due to circumstances beyond their control." ♦
Noises Off • March 31-April 23: Thu-Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 2 pm • $20-$29 • Spokane Civic Theatre • spokanecivictheatre.com • 325-2507