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The authentic farce of The Play That Goes Wrong
According to Mark Bell, farce is a high theatrical art. And he should know: As the director of The Play That Goes Wrong -- a raucous comedy that enjoyed a two-year run on Broadway before transferring to Off-Broadway's New World Stages -- he spends his days treating the genre with the respect it deserves.
"What we're doing is what I call 'clown,'" says Bell. "Which, I don't mean 'circus clown.' It's about character comedy. The first thing we've done is we've found the characters: Who are the people doing this? And their job, really, is to be a slightly exaggerated reflection of who we are as real people."
The play-within-a-play opens as the members of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are about to, rather hastily, present a drama called The Murder at Haversham Manor. What follows is a two-act melee of physical, psychological, and (perhaps) sociopathic high jinks as the cast struggles just to get to curtain call.
A silly murder mystery wrapped in a production going awry, the show features characters dropping their lines, missing their cues, and falling about the set. But as the director states, these gags only work if the cast can make them look effortless. Each mistake needs to seem like a genuine mistake; each fall needs to seem like an actual slip of the feet.
Bell notes that achieving this sense of ease requires performers of incredible skill, and he feels he has a cast that finds the laughs while keeping the truth. "They don't just let anything be all right," he says. "They work for perfection every time, which of course is untenable."
So each time the character Max Bennett, a well-to-do airhead, rams his head into a column -- or nearly misses -- it has a genuine comedic impact. The actor makes running into a column, repeatedly, look not only real, but also painful each time. Meanwhile, as the set continues to deteriorate, sometimes shockingly so, the cast's determination to keep the play running feels authentic.
"This is not what we call in England a 'kitchen-sink drama,' where you see people acting as naturally as possible on stage," Bell says. "This is playing where the stakes are very high, but the characters need to be real people. That is very hard at that level. We will sacrifice jokes that are perfectly good if it helps makes the characters looks realistic."
The payoff for this effort can be immense. The Play That Goes Wrong has had great success in London, and the production, created by Mischief Theatre, now has one version in Australia and another on tour in the U.K.
"This language is very universal," Bell says. "There's something so ingrained in the human psyche that when we're small children, the first thing you start to laugh at is someone falling over, someone getting something wrong. I do think that there's something very fundamental that we need to laugh at ourselves, and so we laugh at these characters we create that sort of do what we feel like we're doing all the time."
Photos by Alastair Muir. Top photo: The cast of The Play That Goes Wrong.