”Hello, everybody. Welcome to mayhem and madness.”
It’s precisely 7 pm and Anton Solomon is just kicking off a rehearsal for the Moving Parts Theatre production of Noises Off, which is scheduled to open 15 days later.
“We’ve got two weeks. Lots of time,” Solomon adds encouragingly.
For the nine-member cast, this is the most awkward stage in the play’s development – the first stumble-through, meaning the first time they have rehearsed without their scripts in hand.
“I’m going to get Stephanie to correct you if you go off the rails,” Solomon advises. “Do whatever you need to get through it.”
It’s the kind of night when anything that could possibly go wrong likely will.
That’s especially appropriate for this play, about an acting company struggling through a classic British farce called Nothing On. But for the cast within-a-cast, the stakes are much higher.
Their play is opening the next night, and the actors are still fumbling for lines and arguing about where they are supposed to be at any given moment.
It’s the dress rehearsal from hell.
Will Selsdon (Mike Ivens), the aging dipsomaniac who plays a cat burglar, show up for his entrance? Even if he does, will he remember his lines?
And what about the sardines?
“I put the receiver back and I leave the sardines?” asks Susan Ellis.
“You put the receiver back, you leave the sardines and you go out with the newspaper.”
Wait a minute. Why is that guy in the top tier of seats giving directions? Isn’t that Solomon’s job?
Then it clicks in. It isn’t really Ellis asking the question. It’s her character, Dotty, who plays the forgetful housekeeper of the 16th Century home owned by tax-evading Phillip Brent (Stephen Dunbar-Edge) and his wife Flavia (Mary Sloan) in Nothing On.
And the guy in the back row is Doug Mayer, who plays Lloyd, the director of that play.
Enter Garry (played by Winluck Wong), accompanied by Brooke (Carrie Ann Bruton). The way her character gloms onto his, you just know a sex scene can’t be far off, and she’ll be the first with Nothing On.
But wait for it. Garry starts to argue with Lloyd – not for the first time, obviously.
And where the heck is Selsdon? A mad search ensues. Lloyd tells Tim (Eli Boivin), the exhausted and harried stage manager, to put on the burglar costume and get set to stand in.
But Selsdon, it turns out, was in the wings the whole time, “Standing there like Hamlet’s father,” Lloyd observes dryly.
“I was just having a little post-prandial snooze behind the stalls,” Selsdon explains.
Chaos reigns, in both the rehearsal and the rehearsal-within-a-rehearsal. But there are definite signs of order beginning to emerge.
“Usually when I read a play, I look at the dialogue first and if I like that, then I get involved as a director,” Solomon explains the next morning over hot chocolate at a downtown café.
“With Noises Off, you can’t do that. Noises Off is about the stage directions,” he says. “So I read it again after saying I didn’t like it very much – just for the stage directions – and saw what the playwright intended. And I went, ‘Oh, this could be so much fun.'”
British playwright Michael Frayn wrote Noises Off in 1982, after watching a performance of a farce he had written for Lynn Redgrave from behind the scenes.
“It was funnier from behind than in front and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind,” Frayn has been quoted as saying.
The farce itself, Nothing On, is a classic of its genre, complete with secret trysts, mistaken identities, lightning-quick entrances and more than a touch of slapstick, falling trousers and all.
Noises Off, the play about the farce, traces the story of the actors as the play proceeds through its run, while both the production and their private lives start to disintegrate.
For Solomon, who founded Moving Parts 10 years ago, the play is a departure from the company’s usual fare, which has ranged from Macbeth and Julius Caesar to Inherit the Wind and The Elephant Man.
“It’s a kind of play we’ve not done as a company before, that requires meticulous timing, meticulous knowledge of where the props are, where the doors are, very consistent running rehearsal time,” he says.
As someone who specializes in physical theatre and relishes staging duels and fights, Solomon concedes that the timing of Noises Off resembles a three-act fight sequence.
“In another play, whether you come in now or a nanosecond from now makes no fundamental difference to the audience enjoyment,” he says. “Here, it can make or break a scene. Yeah, it’s one long choreographed fight. It’s like a ballet.”
Meanwhile, back at the stumble-through, some things do go wrong. A broken plate. An actor bumping her head on a low-hanging piece of a MAD-program set.
Part of the normal, orderly chaos at this stage of rehearsals.
Noises Off opened this week, and runs Tuesday to Saturday until February 19 at the Wood Street Centre. Curtain is at 8 pm.