Friday, November 16, 2007

Noises Off

(The feature article)

Ten people stood in a circle in the middle of the living room of the mansion. They shook their hands, shook their feet, grabbed their tongues, wiggled their buttocks, rolled their heads, and recited tongue twisters like “Betty Botter bought some butter, but she said the butter’s bitter...”

It was just a normal warm-up preceding the night’s rehearsal of Michael Frayne’s hilarious comedy, “Noises Off,” opening at the UC Davis main theater on Thursday, November 15, under the direction of Granada Artist-in-Residence, Jules Aaron.

Frayne got the idea for his play while standing backstage, watching Lynn Redgrave in “Chinamen,” a farce he had written for her. He realized that what was going on backstage was as funny, if not funnier, than what was happening on stage and decided he would write a play which would reflect that.

“Noises Off” (which refers to sounds which are meant to be heard from offstage) is the story of a hapless English acting troupe who are touring a production of a farce called “Nothing On.” It is a comedy in three acts, the first of which is the dress rehearsal for the play, which is opening that night. Act 2 is a matinee performance one month later, as seen from backstage, and Act 3 is a performance near the end of the 10 week run when everyone is bored and anxious to be finished with the play. The comedy involves the mishaps that occur during the performance and the friction among the actors involved in the fictitious show. There is a lot of slapstick comedy involved.

“We’re trying to connect the physicality of the play by doing exercises,” Aaron explains to me, as he passes in front of me and shouts to the cast, ““Don’t lose track of the musicality of it, but make it make sense.”

“The warm ups are really important for this show because it’s so physically demanding,” explained assistant director Stephanie Wilcox. “The actors also have the British accents to master. It’s difficult to wrap your mouth around some of the lines if you haven’t warmed up. We do an extensive warm up every night to make sure they’re really ready to go and have the extra energy to say everything and run around, especially in Act 2.”

“It’s a beast of a show,” laughs Emily Hartman, stage managing her very first show at UC Davis (though she had done a bit in high school and assistant stage managed four shows last year.) “It’s a baptism by fire,” she adds. “I wouldn’t suggest all stage managers start with a show like this, but you can’t drown, so you just have to keep swimming.”

Jules Aaron praises Hartman and Wilcox for being invaluable to the production. “‘Noises Off’ definitely ranks with the most difficult plays I’ve directed,” he said. “It easily ranks with doing a Broadway sized musical or doing a very large Shakespeare, where there is difficult text to work with or there’s difficult integration of music and choreography.”

Aaron knows whereof he speaks. This year’s Granada Artist-in-Residence has directed more than 250 stage and television productions. His credits include 18 Drama-Logue Awards, three Backstage Garland Awards, and four Bay Area Theater awards, among many others.

A long-time friend of Emmy award winning set designer John Iacovelli, who teaches in UCD’s MFA design program (“This may be the 40th show we’ve done together over the past 20 years,” said Iacovelli), Aaron was brought to UC Davis specifically to direct this show. He is delighted to be living in Davis.

“I knew a lot about Davis because John and I are friends and I’ve heard stories for years, but it didn’t quite prepare me for the town, which is so interesting. I was only here four days when I decided there was no way I wasn’t going to have a bicycle. It’s so great because there are no hills. Everything is flat,” he gushed.

He took himself to the annual police bike sale and bought a yellow bike. “I probably paid more than most people pay, but I had to have the yellow bike. There was a serious bidding war between me and another person.”

The director also loves the feel of a campus town. He taught for 20 years at Cal Arts in Valencia and ran their MFA program for 17. “Cal Arts is like a big box with corridors and no sense of
‘campus,’” he described. He now does projects for the American Academy of Dramatic Art, at its Los Angeles campus. “That also is just a kind of a block of a building with a couple of bungalows,” he said, “...but faced with this campus which is really a campus... and the most eclectic buildings I’ve ever seen. When I did my first walk thru I was amazed at the architecture. It’s wild and it’s so large. I’ve done the acting program at UC Riverside and I’ve taught at USC and at the Cal States, so I’ve been at a variety of campuses but this is certainly the biggest and most eclectic of any I’ve been on.”

Arriving at UC Davis, Aaron was pleased with the quality of the Department of Theater and Dance, especially his “Noises Off” cast. “They are a good bunch of people and they bring a very good energy to the project. They have mutual respect for each other, which is very important. They respect the stage manager. They’ve been trained well in that sense.”

For Amy Kronzer, a native of Nevada City who is playing the role of Dottie, the theater diva who can barely remember her lines, Aaron has been a dream to work with. Kronzer, who has been acting since she was a young child and formed her own theater group at age 16, glows. “I’ve never been so prepared for a show before. Usually we’re still working on things up to the last minute, but for this show, we were ready a long time ago, so we could really dive into these characters and make them our own because we were so prepared.”

Amy’s brother Tim is doing his first comedy. “It’s quite a stretch for me, but Jules is fantastic.”

“It’s a great experience,” said Emily Somers, playing the ditzy blonde Brooke. “Jules is a professional and for those of us who want to work in professional theater some day, it’s a great opportunity to work with a director who has had this experience.”

Somers may have one of the more complicated roles to play. “She’s the traditional ditz but she thinks she’s a serious actress. She’s very serious about her exercises, her warm-ups and everything about acting, so she takes it very seriously. Playing bad acting and trying to do it well is a fun challenge.”

All of the cast love working on the huge set, particularly Samuel Hardie, appearing on stage for the first time. Hardie is a design major who felt that seeing things from an actor’s point of view would help him become a better designer. “When everything is so dependent on the set, you need a set designer who has paid close attention. Only as an actor can you truly appreciate the details that are involved in it.”

John Iacovelli’s set was originally created for a production in San Jose, after which it moved to the Pasadena Playhouse and then the Marines Memorial theater in San Francisco, where it had to be lifted 2-1/2 stories on a steep hill and loaded through a window. “The funny thing was that we all started living the lives of the people in the show,” laughed Iacovelli. “It was like living in some third dimension. Every so often people would jump from the 1st to 3rd act. It was only terrifying to us because we were the only ones who knew how screwed up it got.”

Iacovelli also had high praise for what he has seen of the university’s production. “I was really impressed with how well these student actors are doing with this show that is daunting for even professionals.”

John Crosthwaite was brought in “out of retirement” to do the character role of the elderly, nearly deaf Selsdon. Crosthwaite is also helping with fight choreography. “I do a lot of improv comedy and this is one of the crazier things I’d ever seen,” he laughed. “There is some pretty advanced farce stuff. Safety is huge because at any moment someone could just fall or a door could take someone’s nose off.”

“We’ve done several safety trainings,” added Hartman. “There are so many doors. So many possibilities for things to go wrong if the actors are not aware of their surroundings.”

Matt Rapore gets the job of keeping everyone in line, in the role of the director, Lloyd. “My role is slightly different from other people in the play because I’m sitting in the audience for almost the whole first act. I have to separate myself from the actors and play that director. I’ve looked to Jules and other directors I’ve worked with for inspiration to formulate this character. Michael Frayne’s play is so complex and technical but if it’s done well and done right it can be one of the funniest plays ever. Hopefully we’ll have people keeling over with laughter.”

Watching the cast go through their paces during rehearsal, there is little doubt in my mind that people will indeed be “keeling over with laughter” as they watch the antics of this dedicated, well-drilled cast.

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