Ed Stern loves a good laugh. Spend some time around the Cincinnati Playhouse’s longtime producing artistic director (1992-2013) and hearty amusement repeatedly bursts forth. Not long after he announced his retirement, something not so amusing happened: He was diagnosed with a typically terminal cancer.
But he beat it into submission.
In the intervening years he’s had other health issues — when I talked to him he had his foot in a boot — but his afflictions have failed to diminish his immense, good-natured love for the theater.
Stern continues to be a guest director in Cincinnati and beyond. He’s staged shows for Xavier University’s fledgling undergraduate theater program, including Sam Shepard’s searing drama Buried Child last fall. He plans to return to that campus later this year. A year from now he’ll stage The Play That Goes Wrong, a funny British comedy about a completely cursed amateur theater production, at Repertory Theatre St. Louis.
To see the shenanigans he’s currently up to, drop by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company to see his staging of one of the funniest plays ever written: Michael Frayn’s classic backstage comedy, Noises Off. Opening Friday (May 18) and continuing through June 9, it’s the story of a fractious cast touring a not-very-good play called Nothing On. We watch a rehearsal of its first act, witness an early performance from backstage and then see another onstage near the end of its ill-fated run.
In a recent conversation, he told me he saw the original production on Broadway in 1982, as well as the show’s revival in London, where Lynn Redgrave was playing Dotty Otley, the TV star who’s Nothing On’s producer and top-billed performer. Redgrave had played Madame Arkadina in The Notebook of Trigorin, Tennessee Williams’ adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, produced by Stern at the Playhouse in 1996. Stern connected with her after a performance, and Redgrave told him that performing Noises Off was “a complete joy, but you have to be on guard every moment of every performance. You can’t let anything slip.”
Stern says British theater lovers see farce, not tragedy, as the highest form of acting.
“You perform a serious play and you think the audience is really listening,” he says. “But how do you know that? They could have been sleeping! If you were meant to get a laugh on a specific line and you didn’t get it, you didn’t succeed.”
He separates clever farce from low-humor — silly slapstick like The Three Stooges. It’s more about being stupid cleverly. “A good farce,” Stern says, “starts off reasonably and then goes off the tracks and becomes a catastrophe.”
A director must carefully assemble all this craziness. At moments during Noises Off, he says, there might be four different things going on, but you need to be able to say, “This is where the focus should be.”
He emphasizes the importance of following Frayn’s stage directions. “You don’t have to make this show funny. It is funny,” he says. “But everything has to be exact: If two people enter from different doors on the same breath, they have to be together and it should sound like one door slamming.”
Stern has an able cast for Noises Off, drawing from Cincy Shakes’ resident company, including producing artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips. Phillips is onstage for the first time at the company’s new theater, playing — of all things — a beleaguered director.
Noises Off is augmented by the comic skills of Brooke Steele as the ditzy starlet who keeps losing her contact lenses. Stern has also cast Dale Hodges and Joneal Joplin, Cincinnati stage favorites with whom he’s worked numerous times over the past quarter-century.
This show could not have been produced on Cincy Shakes’ former stage on Race Street, since the stage needs to be seen from two distinct perspectives — from the traditional audience viewpoint and then rotated to show the backstage.
“This is a great example of the kinds of shows we can put on this new stage,” Phillips says.
Stern is out to prove that Noises Off is as entertaining as a classic can be.
Noises Off plays Friday (May 18) through June 9 at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, 1195 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine. Tickets/more info: cincyshakes.com