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Producing ‘Noises Off’ like solving a fun puzzle

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San Francisco Playhouse’s Susi Damilano shows off the model of the set for the upcoming production of “Noises Off.” (Courtesy Janos Gereben)

Nonstop pratfalls, doors that open inadvertently or don’t work and disappearing plates of sardines make “Noises Off” — a funny farce about life in the theater by English writer Michael Frayn — a challenge for the cast and director.

A recent visit to a rehearsal of a San Francisco Playhouse production opening next week brings to light a need for mindfulness to accompany the ballet and gymnastics.

Susi Damilano, Playhouse co-founder who’s directing the show, presides over the proceedings calmly, apparently enjoying long hours of hard work, and admitting that the small, empty rehearsal room is a challenging venue: “I bet no one else would be crazy enough to rehearse without having levels and doors!” she says.

The three-act play is performed on a set with two levels, three staircases and eight doors.

Each act consists of a single scene from a play-within-play called “Nothing On,” performed by a struggling theater company on tour. Act 1 is a rehearsal, Act 2 is the premiere seen from backstage, and Act 3 is three months and many performances later on the road, everything falling apart.

Damilano takes issue with the characterization that the play has little substance: “It comes from witnessing something at its surface level, and then realizing how much more is behind an action, the motivations often being completely opposite of what we assume. Entrances are missed because of life happening behind the scenes. And yet, like life, the show must go on.”

Among the plot’s mishaps are a crescendo of forgotten lines, misplaced props (especially the sardines; there are seven plates on the props table) and worst of all, ardent and hostile relationships between the actors, “acted out” in many ways.

“Even the act of rehearsing the play without the set,” says Damilano, “is a ‘behind the scenes’ reality that the audience will never know. They will see the layers get peeled off of the reality within the script, and they will come away thinking ‘what a hilarious piece of fluff,’ and yet, that ‘fluff’ may be one of the most difficult pieces of theater to present.”

Rather than being discouraged by the challenge, Damilano thrives on adversities around her, plot disasters mixing with real life stumbles here and there.

“It’s like a giant puzzle that requires the ensemble to work together like clockwork,” she says. “And it is incredibly fulfilling to work so hard and laugh so much while doing it.”

While she calls the play “the Rubik’s Cube of comedy,” others have referred to it as a side-splittingly accurate caricature of the theatrical community.

Noises Off
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. most Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes May 13
Tickets: $25 to $100
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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