A lot has gone wrong during this endless pandemic, but a lot has gone right for actor Benjamin Nickols — who’s overcome a rare genetic disorder to play a major part in the new Circa ’21 production.

The Seattle-based actor had open-heart surgery in 2020 and is among the cast of eight (plus three vital on-stage technicians) in the wild comedy “The Play That Goes Wrong,” which opens Wednesday in previews, and runs through March 12 at the dinner theater, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.

Nickols, 28, was diagnosed with the rare Marfan syndrome (which likely killed composer Jonathan Larson, of “Rent” and “tick, tick…BOOM!” fame).

“It’s something you have to be genetically tested for,” Nickols said Tuesday at Circa. “As a person with Marfan, I feel like I have to be out there to raise awareness, as well as still doing what you want to do. Go out there and do the activity — this is a physically demanding show. It’s something I can physically do; I’m going to do it.”

Benjamin Nickols is a 28-year-old Missouri native who majored in theater at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

A lot of doctors tell their Marfan’s patients, don’t do anything that’s strenuous on your body. “That can cause a lot of depression for people. They had hopes and ambitions that they had to give up,” he said. “The Play That Goes Wrong” is a tremendously physical, strenuous show.

“I told myself, I can’t stop doing theater — things I absolutely love, that I was trained for — because of this,” Nickols said. He’s comfortable still performing. “I’m gonna continue doing it…I feel totally fine,” he said.

Nickols has been cleared by his cardiologist to perform, noting he was encouraged to stay active. “I have a great cardiologist; she encourages getting that heartbeat up. I have an Apple Watch so I can keep track of what my heart is doing. She’s great, like I don’t think you have to stop doing everything, put everything on the back burner. I think you should go out there and live your life.”

Staying active also helps his mental health, Nickols said. “If I had to give all this up, it would be very dark times,” he said.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” has played in London since 2012, and also is currently in Chicago.

Written by Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis and Henry Shields, “The Play That Goes Wrong” (which premiered in London in 2012) welcomes patrons to opening night of a community theatre troupe (Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society), whose newest production is the Agatha Christie-like 1920s mystery “The Murder at Haversham Manor.”

Events in the show – and the show-behind-the-show – are going from bad to utterly disastrous. The set, props, lighting and sound thwart the performers at every turn and eventually, a few of these semi-amateur thespians, demoralized by disaster, go rogue. It’s a stage manager’s worst nightmare but an audience’s cue for laughter, according to a synopsis.

With an unconscious leading lady, a corpse that can’t play dead and actors who trip over everything (including their lines), the accident-prone participants battle against all odds to make it through to their final curtain in a work lauded by the Los Angeles Times for “the hilarity of a troupe that unfailingly turns can-do into can-don’t!”

The madcap goings-on are led by Circa veteran, Warner Crocker, whose other Rock Island productions have included “The Savannah Sipping Society,” “Shear Madness,” “Mama Won’t Fly” and the musical version of “The Bridges of Madison County.”

Elsa Besler, left, Tristan Tapscott, Ben Nickols, Savannah Strandin, Bobby Becher, TJ Besler, Martin Flowers, and Derrick Bertram.

With cast members Elsa Besler, Martin Flowers, and Ben Nickols making their Circa ’21 debuts, the rest of the ensemble is composed of returning performers Bobby Becher (“Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn”), Derrick Bertram (“Newsies”), Savannah Strandin (“Beehive: The ’60s Musical”), Tristan Tapscott (“Kinky Boots”), and TJ Besler (“The Church Basement Ladies”).

From Savannah to Haversham

Crocker last helmed a Circa show with “Savannah Sipping Society” in fall 2020, then the first show after a six-month shutdown. He had two other 2020 shows scheduled in Memphis, Tenn., canceled and haven’t been restaged.

“It’s an odd time for anyone working in our business,” Crocker said Tuesday, noting the entire cast and crew is fully vaccinated and actors have been rehearsing in masks (they will perform without). “You have to take precautions; you have to deal with all those issues.”

Director Warner Crocker

“The play was originally scheduled for January 2021 and had to be rescheduled. “It’s all a mess, but we’re lucky because we found Ben, who came all the way from Seattle,” Crocker said. The show was due to start rehearsal New Year’s Day, but an actor dropped out, and Nickols was found to replace him, playing Chris the director of the show within the show (as well as a police inspector).

The play was planned to open Jan. 14, and was pushed back a week to give them more preparation time. There are eight actors, and three (non-speaking) technicians in the show. “You’ll see them on stage; they take part in things that go on,” Crocker said of the techies, noting they are integral to the show.

He compared “The Play That Goes Wrong” to the madcap “Noises Off,” the popular 1982 play by Michael Frayn. “There’s more things that happen ‘backstage’ than happen on stage,” Crocker said. “The Play That Goes Wrong” opened in London in 2012 (where it continues to run), and ran on Broadway from April 2017 to January 2019.

“It’s the most demanding show I have done since ‘Noises Off,’ and it makes ‘Noises Off’ look like a walk in the park,” the director said, noting he did the other one in the late ’90s for Buffalo Theatre Ensemble in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

“In this show, there are easily a multiple of 10 more things that happen to this cast while they’re trying to perform the play,” Crocker said of the new show, heavy on physical comedy. “Interaction between the physical elements of the show and the performers is the most intense thing I’ve ever worked on. Literally anything that they touch is going to go wrong.”

“There are some big movements in the show that could go actually wrong,” Nickols said. “Having the extra time to prepare the show as well has been a big advantage, especially for someone coming later in the game. Having the three technicians always there makes it feel a lot safer.”

Stunt coordinator D.C. Wright

The show also is very fortunate that they have a stunt coordinator for the performers, Crocker said. That is D.C. Wright, the head of movement and stage combat at Western Illinois University, Macomb. “D.C. has been integral to our process,” he said, noting a lot of things fall down on this set, including a wall and a chandelier.

“Making sure someone doesn’t get hurt, as well as getting the laugh, is extremely key,” Crocker said.

Nickols a last-minute sub

Nickols is a Seattle-based actor and has appeared with several companies in the Pacific Northwest, including Island Stage Left Much Ado About Nothing and The Tempest, 14/48 (2019, 2020), Fern Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theatre 9/12 You’re Right if You Think, Theater Schmeater Trump the King, and GreenStage (Backyard Bard 2017/2019).

His last live production was an outdoor “Much Ado About Nothing” on San Juan Island, Wash. Nickols’ last indoor show was directing the musical “Little Women” in Seattle, in March 2020, which was forced to close the day before its opening. His day jobs have been most in office reception work.

An actor from Circa’s “Kinky Boots” (in early 2020) was in the San Juan Island show, called Nickols the night of New Year’s Eve, asking for Circa if he was interested in “Play That Goes Wrong.” The rehearsals would start on Jan. 4.

“I saw the show in London, and loved it,” Nickols said Tuesday. He sent Crocker and Circa owner/producer Denny Hitchcock his resume and video clips Jan. 1. Nickols first was told they hired someone else, but then Jan. 3, he got a call at work from Hitchcock asking him to do the show. He flew to the QC on Jan. 4, and started rehearsing that night.

Bobby Becher, left, Savannah Strandin, Tristan Tapscott, Martin Flowers (laying down) and Ben Nickols in “The Play That Gowes Wrong.”

Usually, actors come in the first day already having their part memorized, which wasn’t possible for Nickols. He was emailed the script and he read it on his flights here.

The play is truly an ensemble show, and Nickols’ part is substantial. “This piece can’t work unless everybody is solid,” Crocker said. “The timing has to be perfect. And they’re doing a remarkable job in that rhythm, with themselves.”

“Act 1 came really quickly; I got that down in about three days,” Nickols said. “It really helped to be in rehearsal days. I had my book with me, I practiced at home. You have to correlate the line with the movement, which makes it easier to memorize. It is a beast — I think I was off book maybe four or five days ago.”

Nickols is a native of Excelsior Springs, Mo., who earned his bachelor’s in theater from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He’s been very impressed with Circa, which he called “beautiful,” and the friendly, supportive staff and cast. “It’s been a really nice experience,” he said.

“A big comic beast”

The extra rehearsal time has been invaluable, Crocker said.

“This show is just a beast; a big comic beast,” he said. If they didn’t postpone, they would have had about 10 days rehearsal, 12 hours a day. They’ve been doing eight hours a day.

“It’s exhausting. Comedy is not easy,” Crocker said. “D.C. has worked with people as we’ve done physical things we do in the show, to show them how to do them so they don’t hurt themselves…It’s a gifted cast on a lot of levels — physical comedy, improv, the ability to shift on a dime.”

Tristan Tapscott and Savannah Bay Strandin in the new Circa comedy.

Since the show is filled with theatrical horror stories, the director asked the cast to share their own personal career horror stories.

Nickols’ was when he was in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Seattle (with a cast of just four playing all the roles), and the scene when Lysander wakes up and sees Helena for the first time, the director encouraged actors in the outdoor show to be close to the audience.

Nickols crawled onto a lady’s blanket, put his head down and something under the blanket caused his nose to bleed. “There was blood all on my hand and I have to do this scene with a bloody nose,” he recalled. “I’m trying to cover my nose; it was awful.”

Nickols was in London for a month the summer after his junior year at SIUE, and they saw more than 30 shows, including “The Play That Goes Wrong.” It is currently running in the Broadway in Chicago series, through April 3. Its rave reviews include:

“This is a data-driven observation: People laughed all night.” – Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

Circa’s team of on and off-stage techies includes Emmett Boedeker, Sam Flipp and Khalil Hacker. The rest of the creative team includes scenic designer Susie Holgersson, costume designer Greg Hiatt, scenic engineer Kris Eitrheim, production manager Jeremy Littlejohn, lighting designer Heather Hauskins, technical director Nick Divarco, sound designer Sam Ramont and stage manager Kendall McKasson.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” features Bobby Becher (left), Elsa Besler, Benjamin Elias Nickols, and Derrick Bertram..

Pursuing theater after open-heart surgery

Nickols was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome in spring 2019, a year after his father died of an aortic aneurysm (in his early 50s). His sister also had tested positive for Marfan, so he got tested. It’s just something they watch — she has an annual checkup when she has an echocardiogram done, Nickols said.

He had an MRI done, and an aneurysm was detected. In March 2020, he had another one done, and was at the level where surgery was required — open-heart surgery was done that May. They repaired his heart valve, and it took Nickols three months to recover.

Called the David Procedure (named after the surgeon who conceived it, Tirone David), the patient’s aortic valve is kept and reconnected to a new section of aortic tissue. By preserving the native aortic valve, patients avoid the need for lifelong anticoagulation therapy.

“I had a very talented surgeon,” Nickols said, noting he couldn’t lift anything more than five pounds a month after surgery. He couldn’t drive for a while, which was well-timed during shutdowns, since he didn’t leave the house anyway.

After the three months, Nickols returned to his job with Big Fish Games (until he got laid off in September 2020). “It was great I worked with them, since I had insurance.”

Ben Nickols (right) in a summer 2017 Shakespeare in the park production in Seattle.

It was nerve-wracking being in the hospital at the first peak of the pandemic, also at the time of the Black Lives Matter protests after the George Floyd murder (May 25, 2020). “That was another stress on my life,” Nickols said.

After being diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, Nickols has become an advocate to raise awareness of the genetic disorder. He hopes that his involvement in the theater community will inspire others with Marfan syndrome to not give up their passions; and provoke others to Google it, because an early diagnosis can literally save lives.

Marfan syndrome is a rare genetic condition that affects connective tissue, which can damage the blood vessels, heart, eyes, skin, lungs, and the bones of the hips, spine, feet, and rib cage. Some complications of Marfan can be treated or prevented, including heart disease, bone deformities such as a curved spine, eye conditions, crooked teeth, and collapsed lungs.

Some complications of Marfan can be very serious, like an aneurysm of the aorta, the main artery that takes blood away from the heart. An aortic aneurysm can be life-threatening.

“If it goes undiagnosed, most people with Marfan don’t live past 35,” Nickols said. Many people with it are tall (he is 6’2”), lanky and nearsighted, with curvature of the back, he noted.

Jonathan Larson died Jan. 25, 1996 (at 35), the morning of the first preview performance of “Rent” Off-Broadway, after suffering an aortic dissection.

Jonathan Larson had never been diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, despite having many of the outward signs of Marfan, including being disproportionately tall and having an indented chest, flat feet, and deep-set eyes, according to The Marfan Foundation. Tragically, when he visited the emergency department at two New York City hospitals, they didn’t consider Marfan syndrome or aortic dissection, even though the key feature he presented with was chest pain.

Larson died alone in his apartment on January 25, 1996, just 10 days before his 36th birthday and three months before “Rent” opened to rave reviews on Broadway.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” will be presented on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:45 p.m., Sundays at 5:45 p.m. and beginning Feb. 16, Wednesday matinées at 1:30 p.m. Pre-show entertainment featuring the Circa wait staff, The Bootleggers, also will precede all performances.

Tickets are $56.55 for the evening productions and $49.73 for the matinées, available through the Circa ’21 ticket office or by calling 309-786-7733 ext. 2.