When I first learned that Geneseo's Richmond Hill Barn Theatre was staging author Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning Noises Off this fall, I'll admit that the news made me chuckle, and not just because the show is so funny.
A slapstick farce about a company of actors staging their own slapstick farce - an awful British sex comedy titled Nothing On - Noises Off is a play-within-a-play presented in three acts, the first taking place during the production's final dress rehearsal, the second a month into its run, and the third near the end of the show's 10-week engagement. With the New York Times raving that the comedy "allows you to laugh, loudly and wantonly, at a world in which everything seems out of joint," Frayn's cheeky and fast-paced outing boasts hilarious dialogue, outsize theatrical stereotypes, and, intentionally, just about every genre cliché imaginable, including slamming doors, mistaken identities, pratfalls, and an ingenue racing around in her underwear.
Consequently, Noises Off (which runs at Richmond Hill October 4 through 14) would appear to be an ideal crowd-pleaser for the Geneseo venue's 2012 season. There was just one hitch: As the play's second act actually takes place backstage - allowing audiences a rear view of Nothing On's two-tiered living room employed for Act I - the show all but demands a revolving set, which didn't seem possible considering the intimate, theatre-in-the-round nature of the Barn Theatre. How, exactly, was Richmond Hill going to pull off this Noises Off?
"That was the question," says director Jalayne Riewerts, a 17-year acting/directing veteran at the Barn, and a cast member in two previous productions of Noises Off at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre. "'How are we going to do this in the round?' And my original idea was just to build the set right through the middle of the theatre, and then have the audience walk to the other side between acts. But they [Richmond Hill's play-selection committee] said no to that."
With a laugh, committee member (and Noises Off's master carpenter) John VanDeWoestyne says, "Yeah, her original concept we weren't too crazy about. Once they have their seats, people don't want to move."
"But I went to one Richmond Hill production," says Riewerts, "where they had taken a portion of the seats out, and I realized that's what we could do. All the seats are on boards, and so all they have to do is loosen some screws and they can lift up and move, like, four or five seats at a time. So I took measurements, and finally came up with a plan where we could have a revolving set."
VanDeWoestyne admits that the selection committee did have concerns about the potential loss of revenue from the lost seats, saying that for Noises Off, "we've reduced our overall capacity [of 161] by about 20 percent." He adds, though, that removing one of the Barn's four seating sections "is something we do from time to time," and that Riewerts' design plan - involving the first rotating set in the Barn's 44-year history - was ingenious enough to make the financial risk worthwhile.
"Essentially what we did," says VanDeWoestyne, "is we constructed a 16-foot-long by eight-foot-deep unit set that sits in the middle of the theatre. There are two side sections on the floor that are stationary, but that center unit set pulls out and turns around, just like it would for almost any production of Noises Off."
The unit, which is positioned on moving platforms and which VanDeWoestyne says "has some weight to it but rolls pretty easily," requires four crew members to spin during Noises Off's two intermissions, and features second tiers above the main playing areas on both sides.
"We couldn't do a two-story set," says Riewerts, "because the audience would be sitting there craning their necks the whole time. But the upstairs area is raised about three feet off the stage, so you get the idea of another story, and we can light the area, without the audience going crazy."
Boasting what Riewerts calls "seven doors for slamming," the double-sided set for Richmond Hill's Noises Off was constructed almost solely by VanDeWoestyne and fellow carpenter Nathan Johnson, with the former guessing that, as of our September 17 conversation, the two men have logged some 140 hours of work on the scenic design since construction began in August.
"I'm really pleased with it," says VanDeWoestyne, "especially since it's not readily apparent when you walk in and look at the set that it's going to rotate. Eagle-eyed theatre types who know the show are gonna be looking for it, but the average audience member won't. I think they're just gonna be stunned."
Adding that its construction has been "quite an undertaking," Riewerts calls her show's rotating set "amazing," and says, "It's going to be really fun to watch the people who run down for intermission come back upstairs, and see that the whole thing has completely changed. I think the looks on their faces are gonna be priceless."
"I won't say it's the biggest set we've built," VanDeWoestyne says with a laugh. "But it's certainly the biggest one that's had to move."
Noises Off will be performed at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Robinson Drive, Geneseo) October 4 through 14, with Wednesday through Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday performances at 3 p.m. For more information and tickets, call (309)944-2244 or visit RHPlayers.com.