This story was originally published by ArtsATL.
Who among us has never seen a bad show? You can probably think of a lot of things that can go wrong. Somebody forgets their line, an actor comes on too early or too late, props go missing, set pieces break, a sound cue happens at the wrong time.
“The Play That Goes Wrong,” currently running at Aurora Theatre through June 18, shows us what happens when everything you can think of that could go wrong does go wrong. The result is a chaotic, unforgiving and largely delightful evening of calamity.
The play opens on Chris (played by Marcello Audino), a beleaguered artistic director whose horribly underfunded and understaffed theater company is known for mounting particularly disastrous productions. Chris is introducing the company’s latest production of a 1920s style murder mystery known as “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” At this point, we have already watched a couple of inept stagehands struggling (and ultimately failing) to repair a broken set piece. Chris’ desperation sets the tone for how the show will unfold.
Almost immediately, the play-within-a-play is beset by nearly every onstage issue you can imagine — short of the theater catching fire — that the ill-prepared actors are forced to try to handle. Circumstances deteriorate as the show goes on, with problem after problem mounting with increasing absurdity.
While I would have enjoyed a brief respite from the noisiness of the script, “The Play That Goes Wrong” boasts a committed and indefatigable cast that manages to keep the laughs coming until the very end.
Audino brings an undeniable charm to both the roles of Chris and the inspector who comes to investigate the fictitious murder. Skyler Brown is winningly sardonic as Trevor, the show’s board operator, who watches over the train wreck with snide enjoyment. Caleb Clark is hilarious as Cecil Haversham, who is all too eager to get people to clap for him, no matter what their applause is for. Arianna Hardaway hams it up as Florence Colleymoore, while Anthony Rodriguez is amusingly unhinged as her brother, Thomas Colleymoore.
Jeff McKerley, who plays the Haversham butler Perkins, engineers some of the funniest scenes of the show. Chris Hecke hardly has any lines, and yet manages to be one of the most entertaining yet brutalized corpses you’ve ever seen. Candy McLellan is a scene-stealing comedic presence as a stage manager who is forced to sub for one of the injured actors, relishing every moment of her character’s descent into narcissism.
This production simply would not work without these actors. Without their comedic timing and imagination, the show would risk becoming incredibly repetitive. When something goes wrong every five minutes, it becomes easy to predict when something else is about to go wrong. Their performances add welcome variety and texture.
The cast is also surprisingly athletic, especially Clark, who provides some of the show’s best moments of physical comedy. McLellan and Hardaway are similarly impressive in a later scene that requires both of them to channel their inner WWE wrestlers. Hardaway’s character takes a lot of punishment throughout, and she sells every bruise and contusion with unshakeable determination.
Stage tricks allow the set pieces to wreak carnage on the level of last decade’s notorious Broadway musical, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” Scenery collapses on top of actors in controlled yet nerve-racking descents, and doors swing wildly into unsuspecting faces. You have to admire the technological prowess that goes into making an entire set fall apart, on cue, right in front of the audience’s eyes. The whole thing is, for the most part, seamless.
I must tip my hat to scenic designers Isabel Curley-Clay and Moriah Curley-Clay for creating a set that is both pleasing to look at and highly functional. It cannot be easy to design a set that has to be put back together every night. Costume designers L. Nyrobi N. Moss and Alice Neff also bring their A-games, pulling together a number of eye-catching looks that get mixed and matched as the show-within-a-show devolves. Kristin Talley also has her work cut out for her as props designer, fashioning props that go through nearly as much punishment as the actors using them. The entirety of the design scheme seems to be “make it look good until it doesn’t.”
Lighting designer Toni Sterling and sound designer Mikaela Fraser have slightly less stressful jobs, since their designs aren’t meant to withstand any physical destruction, but they have just as much fun playing with the campier elements of the show-within-a-show. Fraser even gets to pull out some Duran Duran in one of the show’s more tongue-in-cheek moments.
Of course, it’s all held together by director Heidi Cline McKerley, who maintains a cohesive artistic vision throughout. Though we never actually get to see the characters interact when they aren’t performing, there are clear and specific dynamics and arcs that are maintained throughout.
If I have one complaint, it’s that the play does begin to feel overwhelmed by its own sheer freneticism as it approaches the conclusion. At that point, though, it’s tempting to just throw your hands up and revel in the bloodbath. Besides, you probably weren’t invested in solving Lord Haversham’s murder to begin with.
“The Play That Goes Wrong”
Through June 18. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $11-$80. Lawrenceville Arts Center, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 1-678-226-6222, auroratheatre.com.
Luke Evans is an Atlanta-based writer, critic and dramaturg. He covers theater for ArtsATL and Broadway World Atlanta and has worked with theaters such as the Alliance, Actor’s Express, Out Front Theatre and Woodstock Arts. He’s a graduate of Oglethorpe University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, and the University of Houston, where he earned his master’s.
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