Josiah Wallace can't help but feel elated -- and just a little bit terrified -- for both his actors and his audience. After all, he's directing a play that was described in The New York Times as "one of those breakneck exercises in idiocy that make you laugh till you cry. ... It starts off punch-drunk and just keeps getting drunker."
The premise of "The Play That Goes Wrong," on stage starting Sept. 29 at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, is that the opening night of the Cornley University Drama Society's murder-mystery production is going from "bad to utterly disastrous."
"This 1920s whodunit has everything you never wanted in a show," says Dramatists Play Service, which oversees rights to the play. "An unconscious leading lady, a corpse that can't play dead, and actors who trip over everything, including their lines."
"This farce is particularly hard because everything is supposed to be going 'poorly' in the world of the play," Wallace says. "The actors can't remember their lines, and the set is falling apart, but the performers need to experience these things as fresh challenges that they do not know are coming, and attempt to overcome them.
"A 'poorly acted' play is supposed to be happening, but an audience doesn't want to see poor acting! They want to see excellent actors performing wonderfully awful.
"The set functions the same way," he adds. "It's in progressively bad shape throughout the show, but it needs to function perfectly.
"The technical challenges and production calendar have been keeping us up at night, but we've been able to hit our deadlines," Wallace continues. "There are a variety of moments that are truly terrifying to watch and must be perfectly planned and executed. Minus a few bruises, cuts, and abrasions, everyone has stayed relatively intact!"
Wallace admits it has been a challenge for him, for technical director/scenic designer Peter Rexford, and for student designers Andrew Keck (lighting), Tanner Zank (sound design/music composition) and Ella Fletcher (costumes).
But on top of that, "all but one of my cast members is a freshman! Which I'm sure has been a crazy experience for them," he says. "Auditions took place the day before classes started, and we had our first read the next day. They have had to learn prat falls, swordplay, lines, blocking, and interact with set pieces that literally fall apart while they are standing on them in a short period of time, and I've been working them really hard in rehearsals.
"I can't wait for the actors and all of the student designers to have an audience in the room to discover how their work will be received."
Wallace, in his sixth year teaching at JBU, says he fell in love with theater when he was 9, started on stage in eighth grade and realized in college "my theater classes and production work was something I could spend hours working on without fatigue, while my other classes were something that I was just enduring."
Having seen "The Play That Goes Wrong" in London, "I knew that I wanted to direct it someday, but didn't know if I would be able to pull off the technical challenges of the show," he admits. "I've always been drawn to physical theater and technical theater magic, and this play is a tour de force on both fronts.
"The end of each act of this play is first wildly silly, and second, terrifyingly awesome," he adds. "I don't want to give too much away, but the creators of this play are theatrical geniuses – everyone is in for a treat."
And that explains what he hopes playgoers are saying to each other on their way out of the theater:
"That was thrilling, hilarious, and maybe even a bit painful."
'The Play That Goes Wrong'
WHEN -- 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29-30; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6; 2 & 7 p.m. Oct. 7
WHERE -- Berry Performing Arts Center at John Brown University in Siloam Springs
COST -- $7-$15
INFO -- jbu.universitytickets.com