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Turn laughter on with ‘Noises Off’

Director Matthew Mazuroski decided “Shakespeare in Love” might have been an overly ambitious choice for Youngstown Playhouse’s 2019-20 season.

Not only does the stage version of the 1998 Oscar winner for Best Picture feature a large cast but, “They’re in full Shakespearean garb speaking Shakespeare’s language. They have to sing, they have to dance, they have to fight. Plus there’s an enormous set … I don’t think this is something we could do at the level I’d want to do it.”

That doesn’t mean he took the easy way out by substituting the farce “Noises Off,” which opens Friday for a two-weekend run.

It has its own set challenges — one that has to rotate 180 degrees.

Mazuroski, a theater professor at Youngstown State University, said, “I think the audience is in for a real treat. I spent most of my winter break designing the set with Johnny Pecano and Drew Lopez. We’ll show the audience the magic of that thing turning around in full view between acts.”

Michael Frayn’s comedy lets the audience see the inner workings of an English farce called “Nothing On” at three different stages of its run. The first act takes place during the final technical rehearsal as the underprepared cast gets ready for opening night.

“All kinds of interpersonal relationships and conflicts are happening,” Mazuroski said.

For the second act, the timeline jumps to a matinee performance a month into the run, and the stage rotates to let the audience see what’s happening backstage, where those relationships that were starting in Act 1 are causing distractions and other challenges now.

The stage rotates back for Act 3 and one of the final performances of the tour, when the off-stage relationships and wreaking havoc on the performances on stage.

“People who don’t act are fascinated by what goes on backstage and what can go wrong,” Mazuroski said, but the source of the humor is more universal as well. “Everybody has a story about a relationship that has gone wrong, whether it’s in the workplace or in a family or a church or community group. This is another example of what happens when those relationships start souring over time and they have to keep working together.”

Since its London debut in 1982, the comedy has been staged several times on Broadway and in the West End. The original Broadway production earned a Tony nomination for best new play, and the Broadway revivals in 2001-02 and 2016 both earned Tony nominations for best revival of a play. Peter Bogdanovich directed a 1992 film version.

“It is the most consistently produced farce in the English language since it first came out,” Mazuroski said.

“Noises Off” has a smaller cast than “Shakespeare in Love,” but most of the nine actors play two roles — their character in “Nothing On” as well as the actor. While he had open auditions, Mazuroski said he made sure to get the word out early to lure some of the area’s best talent for the demanding production.

The cast features John Cox, Paul Dahman, Sarah Jane Demetruk, Candace DiLullo, Molly Galano, James Hain, Brandy Johanntges, Eric Kibler and John Morris.

The secret to getting maximum laughs out of “Noises Off” or any farce is precision, Mazuroski said.

“John Cox is in the cast, and he’s just a funny guy,” he said. “Put him in front of an audience, and he just turns it on, but you can’t pull focus when it’s not your turn. It’s all about who’s got the football at any given time and how is it passed.”

Much of that humor also is physical. In addition to the door-slamming entrances and exits associated with all farces, “Noises Off” requires characters to fall down stairs and execute other physical bits. Mazuroski said he is drawing on his experience as a fight choreographer in rehearsals.

“It has to look vicious, but it also has to be totally safe. It’s about understanding each actor’s capabilities and what they’re comfortable doing. When an actor is falling down a set of stairs, there’s a technique to it. It’s simply a matter of practicing it to make sure they’re doing it safely, falling on the softer, fleshier parts.”

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