In British playwright Michael Frayn’s comedy Noises Off, a hapless troupe of actors descend into chaos as they produce and perform a fictional play. The 1982 script—which switches the audience’s point of view from onstage to offstage between acts—is notoriously hard to pull off: each actor must play an actor and that actor’s role, and split-second timing and elaborate choreography are essential to the humor.
“We made our name doing edgy British comedy,” says Isaac Lamb of Third Rail, the Portland company reviving the play this month. “There’s nothing edgy about the content of Noises Off, but the technical demands are huge.”
“Farce is a machine,” Lamb says of the play’s exits, entrances, and prop swaps. “The actors have to work like interlocking gears. If you don’t pull it off with total precision, the joke falls apart completely.”
Here’s a look at about 20 seconds of action for four actors (and three props).
START: Actor A, standing “onstage,” grabs two plates of sardines and speaks three lines. Meanwhile, Actor B and Actor C conduct a silent conversation “offstage.”
STEP 1: Actor A goes to the stage’s window (through which he can see offstage, and be seen by the real-life audience) and witnesses Actor B giving flowers to Actor C.
STEP 2: Actor A leaves the “onstage” area. Actor B climbs a backstage staircase, grabbing a fireman’s ax on the way. Actor C stays where he is and delivers a line.
STEP 3: Actor A advances menacingly upon Actor C. Actor B hands the ax to another actor (D), picks up another prop, and goes “onstage” and delivers a line. Meanwhile, that other actor has carried the ax across the “offstage” area.
STEP 4: Actor C gives the flowers to Actor A, picks up another prop, and goes “onstage” and delivers a line. Actor A trades the flowers for the ax and begins lying in wait to attack Actor C when he returns. Actor B returns and sees Actor A with the ax.