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‘Play That Goes Wrong’ coming to Theatre Cedar Rapids
Comedy chaos hitting the stage and falling apart at the seams
If everything goes right, everything will go wrong at Theatre Cedar Rapids from March 30 to April 8.
That’s when the wacky, award-winning British play-within-a-play, “The Play That Goes Wrong,” will be playing on the main stage. Eight players will be playing their hearts out as the scenery falls apart around them, one actress passes out and the others trip over each other and their lines.
That may sound akin to “Noises Off,” but it isn’t.
“This formula is far more like an ‘Airplane’ movie where it just continually goes wrong, every couple minutes. And the joy is just watching (the actors) problem-solve and suffer through that,” said guest director Joe Link, 46, of Cedar Rapids, head of the theater department at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School. “ ... It's like watching ‘Clue’ and ‘Airplane,’ with ‘Monty Python.’ ”
If you go
What: “The Play That Goes Wrong”
Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: March 30 to April 8, 2023; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Friday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $18 to $48, plus fees, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or theatrecr.org/event/the-play-that-goes-wrong/2023-03-30/
Make ’em laugh
Emerging from the pandemic, it’s high time for a belly laugh for the actors, directors, designers, crew — and audience.
“With all the things that have been going on in the world, as of the last several years, all I've wanted with theater — when I go to see it, or when I've been trying out for things — has just to be washed over with joy,” Angela Billman said.
She plays stage manager Annie, who is trying to manage the chaos before getting sucked into the fray onstage like a deer in the headlights.
“I just want to laugh,” she said. “I want to (provide) a little bit of escapism.”
So when she heard TCR was doing this play, she wanted to audition — “to just show up and see what happens.”
Billman, 36, of Cedar Rapids, has dabbled in comedy in the past, saying she “had a ball” doing “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Theatre Cedar Rapids in 2012.
A data analyst at the Cedar Rapids Community School District by day, she’s mostly known for her favorite musical star turns as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” at Theatre Cedar Rapids in 2018, and the title role in “Violet” in 2016 and Dot in “Sunday in the Park with George” in 2018, both for Revival Theatre Company in Cedar Rapids.
Stepping outside her musical comfort zone, she got so much more than she expected this time around.
“I never laughed so hard as I did in the auditions for this show,” she said, “and that was when I was cemented into really wanting to do it. Just because all the fun, the joy, the laughs — such intelligent, smart, witty people.”
It’s also the most physical show she’s been in. She didn’t realize she’d be doing stage combat.
“I’ve never done stage fighting before — ever. And it’s always scared me a lot because I’m a pretty clumsy person in life. So I was just memorizing the script and not reading much of the stage directions,” she said.
Imagine her surprise at the first stage combat rehearsal when cast member and fight director K. Michael Moore turned to her and said, “Well, you know, I gotta teach you most of this stuff, because you're the one that's going to be beating everyone up.”
“I'm like kicking people and punching people and doing WWE flying elbows onto people,” Billman said with a laugh. “I have yet to severely injure anyone. But I've warned everyone of my nature and they all said, ‘Just do it in rehearsal, so we can fix it.’ That's generous.”
The play, which premiered in 2012 in London before making the leap to Broadway in 2017, tells the story of a theatrical society that finally has enough money to stage its first big-budget production, “after a series of absolute failures,” Link said, and the cast is “really excited” to do “The Murder at Haversham Manor.”
“And as things go wrong in a play — which is often one of the biggest laughs you get from an audience — the cast has such heart and they just never let it stop them,” Link said. “So well past injury, well past sets breaking, well past everything falling apart, they find a way to keep going throughout this murder mystery. And hilarity ensues.”
“It's a beast of a show,” added John Miersen, 29, of Cedar Rapids. He plays the director, Chris, who doesn’t just herd cats, he actually wears a lot of hats, from dialect and voice coach, to costume designer and set designer — and he plays the Inspector in the murder mystery.
“He’s the newly elected head of the drama society, and is very proud of his new role,” Miersen said.
As things start to fall apart, director Chris tries to hold it all together
“He’s the one that continues to be, ‘Nope, we can get it back on track,’ ” Miersen said. “He’s grabbing everybody with him and taking them along, like, ‘Put on this show — this cannot be a failure.’ ”
Miersen, who works in territory sales for Acme Tools when he’s not onstage, got his acting start doing comedies. But since those aren’t done as often as he’d like in the Corridor, he’s appeared mostly in dramas, including “Detroit” at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City in 2018; “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Giving Tree Theater in Marion in 2016, as well as Dr. Seward in “Dracula” and Will Shakespeare in the more lighthearted “Shakespeare in Love,” both in 2019 at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
He’s never been a director, but since his character is trying to let the audience see him more as the Inspector than the director, it’s not as big of a stretch to step into that role.
It’s also not the first time director Link has directed an actor to be a director. He also directed this play at Jefferson High School in December, and is bringing those set pieces and props to Theatre Cedar Rapids to be adapted for this production.
In directing Miersen, Link said: “A big part of it is, we talked about it in terms of ‘suffers.’ When something goes wrong, how does each character react differently to what's going on stage? Because we want to have those moments where the audience is right there with us going like, ‘What are they going to do?’
“The director will always do something to try to keep the show going smoothly, with as little change as possible,” Link said. “Whereas another character that might be one of the hapless or dimwitted characters, would make a choice that makes the problem worse, which only makes the director's job more difficult.”
Art imitating life
Pretty much every actor has experienced a moment where something has gone awry. They don’t remember the moments they were brilliant — they remember the moments they weren’t.
For Miersen, those moments manifest in his sleep.
“I can recall countless nightmares and dreams that I've had of being in the wings, and we're walking out to do a show,” he said. “In the dream, everyone's ready for a show, and I'm standing there going, ‘What are my lines? All right, we’re ready, there's a curtain speech, now let's go on.’ And I wake up just sweating.”
For Billman, “a couple stick out very, very brightly.”
“One was when we did ‘Seussical The Musical’ (at Theatre Cedar Rapids). We did it all to (recorded musical) track, so we didn't have anyone playing musical instruments live,” she said. “One time, the music just did not come on. The a whole cast was onstage. I think we just started ad-libbing really silly things about like listening to the monkeys, and ‘Listen to the chirping.’ Jonathan Swenson and I looked at each other with that sense of terror in our eyes. And then finally, thank heavens, the music came on. That was a lovely moment.
“And the second one was at TCR, too. We were doing ‘Peter Pan,’ and the vision that (director) Richard Parker had was amazing, which was to make the set pieces really big, so that the actors seem really small,” Billman said. “Well, by making the set pieces really big, they were all made out of wood. And by the night before opening, for the life of us, we couldn't move the set pieces around. The bed was supposed to transform into a ship, and nothing was moving.”
Link’s memory of things going wrong also involved the scenery in a show he directed.
“The best laugh I ever got in a production at Jefferson High School was in ‘The Three Musketeers.’ They were supposed to be taking a wine cart and ramming it to get into a building. But instead, they missed and hit the sidewall of the theater. Everybody fell off of the cart in unison, and the actors all had the presence to go, ‘Let's ram it again!’ The laughter filled the room from that one.
“And I can completely see that exact moment happening several times in ‘The Play That Goes Wrong,’ because we do bump into the set, and things start to fall over. And it's just a joy to watch as they look at the wreck around them and go, ‘Let's keep going forward.’ ”
Billman, Miersen and the other cast members are taking great delight in cracking each other up in rehearsal, or by adding their own twists on purpose or by accident to the already-funny script, Link said.
When those moments are good, he shouts, “Write it down!” That’s the trick to making a show like this consistent, so the same bits happen show after show, and don’t get forgotten,” he said.
“A lot of it is trying to make sure you have every gimmick repeatable and safe for the actors,” Link noted, “because it's about accidents, it's about things going wrong. And you want the actors to feel totally comfortable and excited to do that to themselves, night after night for a laugh. So we tried to come into the production with as many props and set pieces ready, so that they know exactly what they're getting themselves into.”
Miersen is ready to have audiences in the house and hear their reaction to the actions falling apart onstage. Part of the challenge of doing a comedy is “holding” for the laughs, and not rushing into the dialogue before they’ve had the chance for that release.
“What I'm looking forward to the most is giving them permission to laugh,” he said, “and be like, 'This is OK. This is a safe space for you guys to laugh.’ Once the curtain rises, we’re going to have a lot of fun, and it is nonstop until the very final bow.”
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