Ordinarily, a theater company tries its best to minimize mishaps and mayhem in its productions. For Palo Alto Players, however, those elements are exactly what make "The Play That Goes Wrong," running from Jan. 20 to Feb. 5, the right choice for those looking for amusement this winter.
The show, by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, follows the misfortunes of an earnest amateur drama society that's working very hard and going to great expense to produce what its members hope will be a high-quality whodunit — "The Murder at Haversham Manor." However, "things do not go as planned," said Katie O'Bryon Champlin, director of the Palo Alto Players production. Hilarity ensues.
Audiences follow the production's escalating misfortunes, including malfunctioning props, missed entrances, forgotten lines and scenery breakdowns, as the increasingly desperate characters strive to keep it all going as smoothly as possible.
"It's an exercise in controlled chaos," said Brad Satterwhite, who plays Chris, a character with much invested in the play-within-the-play, serving as both its director and lead actor.
"This is his baby. It's the first show he's directed with the troupe, he wants everything to go very well, and he's consistently trying to get everything back on track and move the show along," he said.
Satterwhite and Champlin, both familiar faces on the local theater scene, have worked together before, including in the uproarious "One Man, Two Guvnors" with Palo Alto Players in 2019, and said they are delighted to reunite for more carefully crafted tomfoolery.
Champlin was approached by Palo Alto Players about leading the show, as she has expertise in its physical and farcical style of comedy, including training from Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre.
"When I'm cast in shows in this area they often have those elements to it," she said. "I get so interested in the craft of this kind of comedy; it's really satisfying that you can break it down into timing, emotion, tone ... so it just clicks."
"The Show That Goes Wrong" is not an easy one to produce. Champlin said she laughed out loud when she first heard the proposal to stage the show locally. Having seen (and loved) the professional production, she wasn't sure a smaller theater company would be able to pull it off, technically. She's been pleasantly surprised.
"It has so many complicated elements that would be daunting for anyone not working with Broadway-level resources, but I have been really well supported," she said.
Champlin noted that typically, actors rehearse offsite and don't get to work with the set and in the theater until right before opening. For this show, a functional (to appear dysfunctional) set, designed by Palo Alto Players' Artistic Director Patrick Klein, is critical for delivering all those meticulously manufactured bits of slapstick magic (Satterwhite referred to the set as a member of the cast in its own right, so crucial is its role).
"We've been lucky enough to have our set 80% built for most of our rehearsal process; it's really helpful," Champlin said. "There's a lot of timing and engineering going into making those mistakes happen when we want them to happen."
In addition to the technical challenges, it's also a very demanding show for its actors. Champlin said that while on most productions, the cast will run a few of the trickiest physical bits right before each performance, "in this show, everything is a tricky bit," she laughed.
"More than any other show I've done, I continue to laugh in rehearsals," she said. "The actors are really invested in their characters and bring a lot of spontaneity."
Mindful of the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact events, the production's 13-member cast includes several double-cast roles, with options to cover other characters should the need arise.
"We wanted to make sure we had people who really knew the show in case we had someone who needed to step out," Champlin explained.
By day, Champlin teaches theater to middle schoolers, and said her work with young performers, who may not have much previous experience, has been helpful in informing her work on "The Play That Goes Wrong" as well.
"In many cases, when you're first starting out as an actor, you don't have a bag of tricks of how to handle things when they go wrong," she said.
While the hilarious woes that befall "The Murder at Haversham Manor" are exaggerated for comedic effect, pretty much all theater veterans can commiserate about things not going exactly as planned in one way or another. In fact, at the first rehearsal, everyone took time to share some memories of less-than-perfect moments in past productions.
For Satterwhite, what came to mind was his time starring in "Romeo and Juliet" in Southern California, when, during the famously romantic balcony scene, the light cues went awry (and remained that way for the rest of the performance).
"This show is kind of a love letter to show business in that way, and how hard sometimes actors take it when they rehearse so long and work so hard and things don't work out," Champlin said.
"I do think this play has a special appeal to people who are involved in theater," she said, "but anyone looking for a good laugh — even if you've never seen a play or done a play before — this show has a lot to offer."
"It's a lot of fun; a good kind of escape," Satterwhite said. "You don't have to think too hard, you just show up and you laugh."
"The Play That Goes Wrong" runs Jan. 20 to Feb. 5 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $10-$60. More information, including on Palo Alto Players' current health and safety policies, can be found at paplayers.org.