“Noises Off” brings laughter back to the Quadracci Powerhouse
Chicago actor Joe Dempsey, playing the director in charge of "Noises Off's" unruly troupe of farcical actors, talks about his career and returning to the Rep.
Joe Dempsey doesn’t consider himself a director. The Chicago-based actor’s only slid over to the other side of the equation a few times in his 20-plus years in the theater, and finds himself firmly in favor of staying on stage night after night. But with Noises Off, opening at the Milwaukee Rep this Friday, he’s become a director once again. Just one of the fictional variety.
Noises Off, of course, is the classic Michael Frayn farce that depicts a hapless British theater company that attempts to stage a farce titled Nothing On with disastrous results. Noises Off depicts that production’s cast and crew onstage and off, starting with a dress rehearsal, moving backstage during an early performance and ending with a worst-yet performance near the end of their tour. Throughout, the nine-person ensemble wrestles with professional jealousy, romantic entanglements real and imaginary and – most crippling of all – the fact that they aren’t very good.
Dempsey, who plays Lloyd, the play-within-the-play’s volatile, “love trapezoid”-entangled director, says the cast assembled by actual-director KJ Sanchez doesn’t share that problem, largely due to the fact that the bulk of the cast members (specifically, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Kelley Faulkner, Laura Gordon, Gerard Neugent and Deborah Staples) are regular co-actors at the Rep, a fact which makes a “100 percent difference” in their performances. His own ties to the Rep are different than these repeat offenders. Noises Off may merely mark Dempsey’s third time in a leading role on a Rep stage, but it’s also his latest return to a place formative in his career as an actor, where he served as an acting intern in the 1988/89 season and earned his Equity card.
“I’ve always felt attached to this place and to this company,” Dempsey said. To his regret, much of that attachment has been from afar – his most recent appearance was only two seasons ago, in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), but before that it’d been 24 years since he stepped on stage as a replacement in Laughing Wild, the season after his internship’s end. But Dempsey’s enjoyed returning to Milwaukee after multiple decades keeping an eye on the city from Chicago. “It was interesting to see what changes the city has gone through,” he said, “from a really solid, relaxed, Midwest city to more of – there’s food, and there’s restaurants now, and people drive too fast.”
Getting to come back for Noises Off also marks an opportunity for him to check this well-loved, often-produced play, which he’s never been involved in, off his career bucket list too. “In this day and age,” he said, “if you put in enough time in the theater, it’s pretty rare you’re not going to do Noises Off at some point. It’s like not doing any Shakespeare somehow – people do it, but it’s pretty rare.”
Dempsey says Noises Off’s reputation stems largely from the way it gives audience members a look behind the curtain without ever being too mean to its subjects. “Noises Off is just a big love letter to theater. It takes every stereotype that one might have about a director, an actor, the backstage people … and just mashes it all together. … I think Frayn is just saying ‘I love theater and I love these people. Look how stupid they all are.’”
It’s a lot of thought-process for a play where one of the best gags comes from a fall down the stairs (a fact which Dempsey says suggests that physical comedy supersedes all other forms), but Dempsey says that in the moment, it’s that very downward dissolution that gives Noises Off the necessary momentum to succeed. “Some plays are roller coasters – they go down and then go up. To me, this play seems like a toboggan slide. Once you push off, it’s only going one direction, and it doesn’t stop until you finally get to the end. … You’re not steering at all; it’s steering you.”
Rep audiences have waited a long while to see a comedy back in the Quadracci Powerhouse. Now, it’s time to get on that toboggan.
Noises Off opens Friday, Nov. 22, and runs through Dec. 22 in the Quadracci Powerhouse. For tickets and more information, call (414) 224-9490 or visit the Rep’s website.