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Comedy about a comedy

By Kerianne Tupac

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre & Drama presents Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” described by the New York Times as the “most dexterously realized comedy ever about putting on a comedy.” The play contains some mild sexual innuendo. Department of Theatre & Drama Professor and Head of Performance John Neville-Andrews directs. “Noises Off plays 7:30 p.m. February 16, 8 p.m. February 17 & 18, and 2 p.m. February 19 at the Mendelssohn Theatre.

English playwright and novelist Michael Frayn is the award-winning author of several novels, plays, and articles, including Copenhagen (1998) and Democracy (2003). Frayn came up with the idea for Noises Off while watching a performance of his play Chinamen (1970) from the wings. He said that “it was funnier from behind than in front and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind.”

The prototype for the play, a one-act called Exits, was written and performed in 1977. By his associate Michael Cordon’s request, Frayn expanded the one-act into what is now Noises Off. The play opened to rave reviews at the Lyric Theatre in London in 1982 and at its New York City premiere a year later. Noises Off won the Evening Standard and Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Comedy, and was subsequently nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. In 1992, a film version of the work starred Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, and John Ritter.

Director Neville-Andrews has acted in or directed “Noises Off” six times. “I’ve always sworn I would never do it again, but it’s one of those plays that you just can’t stay away from. The rewards are so great when you hear the audience laugh uproariously at what goes on on-stage,” said Neville-Andrews.

“You have to tailor the production to the theatre,” he said. “We were very lucky in that we were able to rehearse on the set which was built for us ahead of time in the scene shop. In real life, things do happen on-stage similar to the action in ‘Noises Off’ where actors must divert disasters. The adage of the ‘show must go on’ is really true when it comes to theatre. Audiences relate to the show — even people who aren’t that interested in theatre or who don’t know much about what goes on backstage.”

The story concerns a hapless theatre troupe rehearsing and then touring a production of a bawdy comedy, Nothing On around provincial England. Unfortunately, during their final dress rehearsal, almost nothing is going right – the cast can’t remember their lines, they mix up their blocking, misplace props, and lose sight of why they’re acting.

Even the director is certain that the show will be a disaster. Somehow the cast pulls through, but by midtour the drama has moved backstage, as cast and crews’ personal lives start to mirror the insanity in the play, with sexual dalliances, jealousies, and chaos reigning overall. By closing night, the play is in complete shambles both onstage and off, with open warfare occurring among cast members and everyone simply trying to survive until the final curtain.

Guest Naz Edwards joins the cast of U-M students in the role of Dotty Otley. A professional actor, Edwards has worked extensively on Broadway and in regional theatre including locally at the Performance Network. “We like to expose our young student actors to as much of the real world as possible,” said Neville-Andrews. “It’s great to have Naz working with us. It’s good for the students to witness her work ethic, and how she works as a seasoned professional since that’s what they’re aiming for once they leave U-M.”

Joining Neville-Andrews on the creative team is scenic designer Gary Decker, whose work was last seen in Suddenly Last Summer. Undergraduate students in the Department of Theatre & Drama, Andrew Lott and Katelyn Rouse make their mainstage debuts as lighting and costume designer respectively. Colin Fulton, whose work has been heard in Dancelucent 2012, “The Beaux Stratagem” and “Suddenly Last Summer”this season, serves as sound designer.

Following the Friday performance on February 17, there will be a post-performance discussion moderated by Neville-Andrews and featuring members of the cast. Curtain Call Fridays offer an opportunity for audience members to talk with artists about each production. Sponsored by the Friends of Theatre & Drama, the discussions are free and open to all.

Tickets for “Noises Off” are $26 and $20 reserved seating with students $10 with ID. Tickets are available in person at the League Ticket Office, located within the Michigan League. The Ticket Office is open from 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday and 10am-1pm on Saturday.

Order by phone at (734) 764-2538. All major credit cards are accepted. Tickets may also be ordered online at The Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, located within the Michigan League at 911 N. University Ave., is accessible to patrons in wheelchairs and features an infrared assisted listening system.

Clockwise from bottom left: Avery DiUbaldo as Selsdon Mowbray, Naz Edwards as Dotty Otley, Zoe Kanters as Belinda Blair, Philip Maxwell as Garry Lejeune, Sophie Hindley as Brooke Ashton, and Casey Hanley as Frederick Fellowes in the UM Department of Theatre & Drama’s production of “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn.