Called the funniest farce ever written, “Noises Off!” is comedy chaos, set in motion by the simultaneous drama unfolding on stage and behind the scenes as an inept group of stage actors rehearse for a flop called Nothing’s On. Once the action is underway – both scripted and in real time – it’s an entertaining cliff dive of epic proportion.
“It’s a farce within a farce,” says director Tom Fallon. First staged in the early 80’s, the show was revived countless times and the film version starring some major marquee names like Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine lead to the show’s allure as what Fallon calls “the golden chalice of theatre.”
“I have a brilliant cast. A couple of newbies, and that’s okay. The others are pros,” says Fallon. “I’m just very lucky. I get here, and I try to put the stuff in the right place and then sit back and laugh for two or three hours straight.”
The show requires a dexterous cast, which includes Michael Lipp, Cathy O’Brien, Michael Yarick, William Collyer, Christopher Watson, Samantha Parsons, Bryan Martins and Anabella Didion, flexible in both body and mind, to pull off such a physically challenging show. Fallon is a force in his own right, an actor’s director with quick praise, strong leadership and a great eye for seeing the complete piece and break it down to the molecular level.
During the interview, cast member Katie Johnston strolls through and Fallon casually mentions that her script is sitting atop a rolling cart to which she is visibly relieved. She tells her director she found a key online that allowed her to run her lines “sans script.” Fallon reacts to the missing script with high praise – “she’s marvelous” – and Johnston feels no trepidation in her confessing to her director that she had indeed misplaced it. This is how the pros do it.
Noises Off is a well-choreographed frenzy of motion that intentionally confounds audiences and forces the cast to act on the very tips of their toes. Despite the whirlwind of activity, each movement and moment deliberate and integral to maintaining momentum.
“It’s is not an improv kind of show. It’s so fast-paced and a demanding, and I mean demanding, script. The first act is pretty much is a straight play except that it’s a straight play about people putting on a play. And even though the dialogue is fast and furious, the doors are opening and closing simultaneously, it’s a farce,” says Fallon. “By the time you get to the second act, they spin the stage around and they’re getting ready to put the show on and you’re seeing it from backstage. So, the show’s going on one side of the set and you’re seeing what’s going on the backstage side and it’s all in pantomime.”
The pantomime is a wordless descent into the pandemonium unraveling behind the scenes as everything going wrong backstage causes a reaction on the stage. It’s tricky and best served by a director capable of isolating each step of the physically demanding show to determine its specific function.
Fallon is the conductor of the madness and it’s up to him to orchestrate each part of the machine to work for – and against – the rest. “For me, it’s fairly easy because everything is pretty much spelled out in the script and there’s no time for any deviation from that theme. We’ve got pieces where someone runs up to hand someone a tray of sardines and the door slams in their face but it’s not in the script. You start to get a sense of how quickly things can go downhill,” laughs Fallon.
“The image of the show is the Thelma and Louise car going off the cliff. We’ve got all these wacky actors playing all these wacky characters and they’re having to do both simultaneously which is freaking hard. And as things go wrong, the lines change. There are references even in the script to where it goes “she takes the newspaper and the telephone with her except she doesn’t”. So, you’re getting conflicting information right off the pages that she’s not doing it right. It’s little short circuits going on all over the place.”
Fallon isn’t worried that revealing details of the story will compromise the audience experience. It’s the type of show that can camouflage itself in plain sight. He recalls the story of a friend who starred in a college production of “Noises Off!” and a member of the cast took a tumble down a set of escape stairs backstage on opening night. She wasn’t injured but went to the hospital as a precautionary measure forcing the cancellation of the night’s performance.
“The house manager had to come out on stage and say, ‘ladies and gentlemen, I’m very sorry but we’re going to have to cancel tonight’s show’ and everybody burst out laughing like ‘what’s next?’ ‘No, I’m serious, you’ve got to leave’ but that’s the kind of show it is. This show is kind of this golden chalice of theatre. Some shows have it and this one does. It’s just for fun. There’s something to be said for that. It’s not going to change the world but you’re going to have a grand old time.”