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Fast-paced comedy 'Noises Off' offers Red River theater students 'something to sink their teeth into'

The cast of the Red River High School production of the comedy "Noises Off" rehearse the curtain call this week. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 3
Ella Dostal, as Dolly, rehearses a scene from "Noises Off," which runs through Sunday at Red River High School. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 3
In "Noises Off," a play within a play, the director, Lloyd (Seth Brandl, left), discusses a scene with Garry (Brady Ritland). (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 3

Before starting rehearsals for "Noises Off" at Red River High School, the play's director Rich McFarlane thought it would be a good idea to have the cast and crew watch the movie version at their first meeting.

"I sat there, melting, shrinking into my seat and thinking, oh my gosh, there's so much choreography—in the theater we call it blocking," he said. "If one kid misses an entrance by three seconds, you've derailed the next 10 minutes of the performance."

It didn't help that his experienced, theater-directing friends questioned his sanity when they learned about his decision to mount the play.

"(One of them) thought I was crazy," he said. "It's a monster of a show. It's so demanding and so crazy. At one point, about 40 to 50 props are passed around extremely quickly."

"Noises Off" is a play about a cast putting on a play. The set spins completely around so, in the second act, the audience watches the actors perform their play as though from backstage.

The 1982 farce by the English playwright Michael Frayn takes its title from the theatrical stage direction indicating sounds coming from offstage.

Packed with physical comedy, the story revolves around an assortment of itinerant mediocre actors who are rehearsing a flop called "Nothing's On," a silly sex comedy, led by an ambitious director.

Doors slamming, on- and off-stage intrigue, and misplaced sardines all figure into the plot of this hilarious play.

"There are love interests and love triangles," McFarlane said.

The conflict in the play is intensified when several theater romances turn sour. Because of jealousy, double-crosses and misunderstandings, tensions mount and the performances go from bad to worse to wonderfully awful.

McFarlane, a speech and theater arts teacher, said speaking publicly tops the list of people's greatest fears. That well-known fear fuels the comedy and sets the stage for disaster.

"It's the humor that comes from failing publicly, in front of a live audience," he said.

As the play progresses, "you see everyone's nightmare in front of your eyes. (The cast) is trying to salvage the show—it's painful to watch. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong."

McFarlane chose "Noises Off" because he felt "the stars aligned this year" and he had a "perfect match" of all the right actors for it.

"A lot of the kids in the cast are theater veterans; they've been doing this a lot," he said. "I chose the show to give them something to sink their teeth into."

"It's one of the most difficult (plays) I've been part of," said Brady Ritland, who plays an actor named Garry. "It's so technical."

Ella Dostal, who plays Dotty, added, "You're switching in and out of character."

"It's a very difficult show," McFarlane said, "and they're knocking it out of the park."

Don't look for this play to explore any deep literary themes or timeless truth, though.

"It's just a funny, entertaining play. I hope the audience has a good laugh," he said.

"We're in the winter doldrums; we don't get a lot of sunshine, we don't get a lot of warmth. But with this show, you get screaming belly laughs. I've seen it where the show stops for 15 seconds because the audience is laughing so much."

If you go

• What: "Noises Off" theatrical production.

• When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.

• Where: Red River High School, 2211 17th Ave.S., Grand Forks.

• Tickets: $8 for adults, $5 for students and seniors; reserved seating.

• Reservations: Call (701) 746-2411 or go to (click on upper-right link).