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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Northern Stage performs ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’

The production was a source of ‘laugh therapy’ for the audience and connection for the cast and crew.

The Play That Goes Wrong Courtesy Photo.jpg

On April 14, Northern Stage — a professional regional theater company in White River Junction — concluded its final performance of Mischief Theatre Company’s long-running comedy “The Play That Goes Wrong.”

Directed by Dartmouth theater professor Peter Hackett, the play follows the wildly amusing and woefully earnest efforts of the cast and crew of the Cornley Drama Society, who are attempting to put on their opening show of the dramatic mystery “Murder at Haversham Manor.” Over the course of the performance, however, things go from relatively redeemable to egregiously wrong, from acting incompetency to set instability.

“I remember when I saw it in New York, I woke up the next day fully sore — my abs were sore from laughing,” Kate Budney ’21 said.

Budney interned with Northern Stage as a junior through the company’s Dartmouth Experiential Term “E-Term,” which allows selected students to train in various professional theater aspects, such as acting, production, and marketing. During her internship, Budney understudied three roles in the play, which she called “two hours of laugh therapy.”

Caitlin Duffy, who played the crew-turned-cast member Annie Twilloil, admitted she was initially concerned that the slapstick comedy would not generate critical thoughts or conversations among audience members. However, Duffy said she ultimately realized the importance of comedy theater.

“I thought, ‘Oh, there’s 100% a time and place for this kind of theater, too: theater that makes you belly laugh in a room with strangers,’” she said. “It’s not about escapism — we can’t and should not escape from the things that are going on in the world that are very real — but I think it’s also important to laugh and heal in that way.”

Hackett recalled his “love” for the play after seeing it with his family nearly a decade ago when it opened in the West End, London, where it continues to run. 

When Hackett’s wife, Northern Stage artistic director Carol Dunne, approached him about staging the play in Vermont a few years ago, he jumped at the opportunity to watch the “hysterical” comedy again, this time with a director’s eye.

However, Hackett said he immediately recognized the “hefty” mechanical challenges that adapting the play for Northern Stage would pose. 

“In comedy, you want everybody in the audience to be able to see the moment at exactly the same time,” Hackett said.

Other stages have facilitated the viewing experience in the past using a “picture box”-style stage — a largely flat, framed stage — for which the play was designed. Northern Stage, however, has a  “thrust stage,” where the audience sits on all sides.

As a result, the production’s design team had to determine how to produce the play effectively in the alternate, new space. In some cases, the team strategically positioned set pieces for the humor to effectively translate to the stage, including for a highly physical scene involving a phone call. In other moments, the design team had to gin up more significant innovations, such as designing a facade of an elevator instead of using the original show’s “real” one, according to Hackett.

Another challenge, Hackett explained, was a lack of specific instructions from the script. Although the stage play details the various problems that the characters are forced to confront, “they don’t tell you how to do it,” he explained.

“I can’t tell you how much time we spent trying to figure out the fire effect,” Hackett said, referring to a scene where a character extinguishes an accidental flame mid-show.

Duffy said the physical aspects and demands of the show were intimidating at first. 

“I was really nervous about the physical stuff,” Duffy said. “But we had a phenomenal fight choreographer who made everything feel really possible.”

Budney added that the choreographer “worked with the [cast] to figure out what felt comfortable in their bodies, but also what was going to read to the audience [as funny].”

“It’s about finding the right timing for how to fall off the platform so that the audience thinks it’s as funny as possible, [but] they’re not afraid for your life,” Budney said.

As a result, the different elements of the production played out differently each show, Hackett explained. 

“What the actors have is a framework that we put in rehearsal because they have to accomplish the task … but, inevitably, something goes wrong [in real life], and they have to adjust,” he said. 

Both Hackett and Budney said the audience plays a formative role in the show, especially because  some characters improvise certain lines based on audience reactions.

“What they react to each night sort of shapes the show,” Budney explained.

Hackett added that all the show’s mechanical effects required not only the actors’ help, but also those of the entire four-woman backstage stage crew. They “made the mistakes [happen] when they were supposed to,” according to Hackett. 

Reflecting more broadly on the show, Duffy said there was an endearing quality about how “The Play That Goes Wrong” calls for the characters’ simple approach to obvious objectives — literally overcoming obstacles as fast as possible. Typical plays, Duffy explained, involve lots of character building and “text work.”

“I think the thing that keeps [audiences] from hopefully getting bored watching it for two and a half hours is that the characters have such heart,” she said.

Duffy furthered that she unexpectedly rediscovered her love of live theater every night while playing Annie — a character, who herself is an actor undergoing the same journey.  

When asked about his favorite part of the process, Hackett cited the reactions of young audience members. 

 “The kids just go nuts … they scream — it’s the funniest thing,” he said. 

Duffy pointed to the extraordinary closeness of the cast, which Budney added is not always common in professional theater.

“I think that theater time moves faster than real time,” Duffy said. “When you’re in rehearsal for eight hours a day, your hearts are open because they have to be for this kind of work. You get to know each other faster and hopefully relate to each other. And every once in a while, you all really love each other, and that’s what happened with this one [show].”