In “Nothing On,” the play within the play “Noises Off,” fictional director Lloyd Dallas tells his cast that their show is very much about one thing: sardines. His real-life counterpart Nancy Saklad said much of the same about her SUNY New Paltz production.
“A lot of things about sardines are very characteristic of the humor of this play,” she said of the “Noises Off” prop. “They are slimy, smelly and they slide around easily. We got a lot of gags out of them.”
Utilizing props, a revolving set and mastering physical comedy were all challenges the cast and director of “Noises Off” said they met head-on while trying to elicit laughter from every audience member present at recent performances in McKenna Theater.
Written in 1982 by English playwright Michael Frayn, “Noises Off” focuses on a group of actors, stage staff and a director attempting to put on a show entitled “Nothing On.” Each of the three acts of “Noises Off” contains a performance of the first act of the play within the play, in which a couple avoiding paying taxes find a representative from Inland Revenue in their home. However, Vicki is being scuttled into closets by the real estate agent trying to woo her, all while a maid walks in and out of the set’s eight doors – one of which a burglar breaks into.
Saklad, who called the farcical comedy the most challenging play she has had to direct, said much of the humor of “Noises Off” is dependent upon timing and the cast’s ability to react with their physical environment.
“The cast really had to learn how to use their bodies expressively,” she said. “So much of the play relies on physical humor, including distinct and archetypal choices.”
Several characters made the same physical blunders and reiterated certain phrases throughout the production. Whether Anna Miressi had to feign constantly losing her contacts as Brooke Ashton or Joanna Levinger’s Dotty Otley mispronouncing “Spain” while losing several dishes of sardines, Saklad said the cast was challenged to use their bodies throughout the production.
Jessika Kerimian, who played Belinda Blair (and her character, Flavia Brent), said the fluidity of the action and quick banter help drive the story and reveal each character’s personality.
“The hilarity truly ensues when the inner-workings of this company start to unravel,” she said. “It’s when the true colors of these individuals come out during the course of the action of the play — who holds it together and what causes someone to snap.”
According to Saklad, this becomes particularly evident in the second act of the play. At this point in the production the revolving set, that took seven to eight weeks to construct, is turned to reveal the backstage area of “Nothing On.” However, the cast continues to put on the play within the play on the other side of the set, causing them to remain largely silent while facing the McKenna Theater audience.
But the director said the student actors were up to the challenge of making people laugh by falling down or opening a door at the right time.
“They were an amazing cast,” Saklad said. “All of us worked to deal with the nature of the beast.”
Kerimian said the problems that occurred during “Noises Off” rehearsals grew to be very similar to those developing within the world of “Nothing On.” The actress said it became fun for the cast to notice the similarities they were developing with both of their characters.
According to Levinger, the humorous characters resound with audiences because all people can relate.
“Everyone has had something go to shit right in front of them and tried to fix it, all while having their shoes tied together,” she said.
For the cast of students with varied backgrounds and experiences, working to make the audience “laugh until they cry” as Saklad said, became a rewarding experience.
Miressi, who described both of her characters as being ditsy but different, said working on a comedy like “Noises Off” is unique in that certain jokes could garner laughs some nights and not during others.
“In a way, that makes the comedic acting more gratifying,” Miressi said. “You have a direct connection and get an immediate response from the audience.”
The final performances of “Noises Off” will be held in McKenna Theater on Sunday, Nov. 21.