On Friday, Nov 5th, 2021, Cornell’s student-run Cog Dog Theatre Troupe debuted their rendition of the play Noises Off in the Risley Theatre on North Campus. Originally published in 1982 by British playwright Michael Frayn, the storyline follows the model of a play-within-a-play, wherein the actors involved are playing characters who are actors themselves as they attempt to put on their own production titled Nothing On.
A relatively small production, this performance had more people behind the scenes than were actually on stage. Behind the scenes were the director of the play, Ishini Gammanpila ’22, Jill Muszynski ’24 as stage manager, Savanna Tong as assistant stage manager, Giacomo Cuomo ’25 on lights and sound in partnership with Ben Mehler ’25 doing lighting and sound design, set design by Tiernan Tobin ’25 and assembled by Emma Kindig ’22 and Julianna Lee ’22. Finally, Chiara Corey ’21 designed the poster with Samantha Sasaki ’23 and Sophia Adams ’21 designing the program.
The play follows the exasperated stage director Lloyd (Caden DeWitz ’22) as he struggles to maintain his crumbling production of Nothing On. Split into three acts, the first one takes place the night before the show is set to open. The actors are clearly struggling to maintain their composure as each of them appears to suffer from a selective ability to remember their lines, and constant interjections regarding ways in which scenes should be staged lead to increasing tensions between the director and his actors. While the humor is certainly present at this stage of the show, it tends to skew more towards sympathetic before developing into the far-out farce that it becomes later on.
The audience feels sympathetic to the plight of the director as he is questioned by actors who seem to think that they know better than he does in nearly every situation. Then there is the case of Selsdon (Whitman Ochiai ’25), whose alcoholic induced appearance marks the turning point from reasonable difficulties to outlandish problems within the production of Nothing On. As the first act wanes, it begins to delve into more of the absurdity that comes to define the latter parts of the play. While the audience is initially aware that the deadline for the play is close, it is not revealed until later in the act that they are, in fact, rehearsing this debacle the night before it is set to premiere. The actors manage to do an excellent job expressing the personal tics of their characters, especially as the act progresses and the rehearsal begins to stretch well beyond the stroke of midnight.
The second act takes place a month later, as the characters have begun to break down from the stress of performing unprepared. While the first act was set with the audience looking at the actors on their stage, this second act shifts the set to a backstage look and is much stronger for it. Julia Kelso ’24 gives a fantastic performance as Dotty, a character who exemplifies all the self importance of a high profile theatrical celebrity. Watching the actors struggle to maintain their composure behind the curtain before miraculously delivering their lines offstage was one of the more humorous visual elements of the play. Meanwhile, the debacle of Lloyd trying to appease the two cast members that he is sleeping with, Poppy (Valeria Hernández Sánchez) and Brooke (Ally Bruno ’25) by means of flowers and whiskey leads to hilarious miscommunications, with the character, Tim (Evan Sunshine ’24) often taking the blame. This is where the play truly goes into farce territory, shining as an example of late 20th century British comedy.
The physical comedy paired with the witty dialogue shows both the prowess of the playwright’s craftsmanship and the actors’ ability to thrive in this style of comedy. While what the audience sees in front of them does well with its visual comedy, the auditory comedy coming from behind the stage is where a lot of the laughs come from; the audience does not get to see what happens on stage during this act, so they are left to wonder what all of the funny sounds and awkward pauses must be. Allowing the audience to see things from the characters’ backstage perspective lets them utilize their imagination more fully when it comes to understanding what specifically is going wrong in this production.
The third act is the weakest, through no fault of the actors, but instead a result of tacked-on narrative. The play could have very easily ended with Lloyd sitting on a cactus at the end of the second act — however, it curiously decides to cut to the end of their ten week tour. While this act is not unfunny, it simply seems unnecessary. It shows a complete breakdown of the actors as jealousies reach a boiling point between Garry (Joseph Lang ’25) and Freddie (John Colie ’23), with the former stealing the spotlight due to the manic energy that he imbues his character with. Even the mild mannered Belinda (Abby Kelly ’23) begins to crack as she attempts to both maintain the peace and keep from going insane like the rest of her castmates. As previously mentioned, this is certainly a humorous act, but it does nevertheless seem tacked on. Either this act or the previous one could have served as the closing piece of a two-act play, but putting them both in seems excessive.
For many, this show serves as one of their first times seeing theatre since March 2020. The transparent masks that the actors wore during the production are emblematic of a different time since stages were last set — yet even after nineteen months, people still look for entertainment in the world beyond the realm of the internet and this little play manages to give the audience something that they have been looking for since they last sat in a theatre: humor.
Tom Sandford is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].