Dallas — If you never wondered what goes on at the soundboard or in the lighting booth in a technical rehearsal for a live theater production, then 10 Out of 12 might not be your cup of tedium.
On the other hand, if a backstage look at the concrete details, on-the-spot decisions and exhausting hours of behind-the scenes work required to bring off the premiere of any new play is fascinating stuff, then you won’t want to miss the regional premiere of Anne Washburn’s 2015 off-Broadway comedy at Undermain Theatre. Blake Hackler directs his 14-member cast with an easy playfulness, encouraging sudden outbreaks of comic virtuosity, but tightening the reigns so we can hear the thrilling throb of cacophony when everybody’s talking at the same time, stirring chaos while honing in on order.
The title refers to an Actor’s Equity Association clause requiring two hours of breaks in a 12-hour period for theater folks. That includes the all-encompassing technical rehearsal during which lights, sound designs and costumes are orchestrated into the unified drama the playwright wrote and the director and actors have spent weeks shaping. The playwright, by the way, takes the night off and leaves the director sarcastically missing that “little nimbus of panic and criticism right over my right shoulder.” It’s a hard-knock night!
Washburn was clearly taking notes behind the scenes during the productions of her earlier innovative works, including the witty and apocalyptic Mr. Burns: a post-electric play and Apparition (staged in the dark). In the vein of Noises Off and other plays about the chaos behind the thin veneer of a polished show, the humor in 10 out of 12 fires from juxtaposing the drama behind the curtain and the one written for the audience waiting for it to go up.
The comedy here is not only in the world-weary director (a sardonic and comically distant Thomas Ward) conceding that “the flu gods move in mysterious ways,” and hoping his wayward actors will stay on script— minimally. The play about to be born is a kind of period piece with tight bodices and flowing waistcoats, a mash-up of gothic gentlemen’s duels and brazen barmaids, with a dash of homoeroticism that becomes hilarious, despite itself. But that’s not the half of it.
Techies are soooo serious about all this. And we can hear all their nerved-up, realistic jargon. Everybody in the audience gets a headset, so we can follow the action on the stage as well as the backstage buzz and rumble of a light cue, while the director is grousing about exit lights. The soundman is trying to get “more bottom” in a roll of thunder, while the bored heroine, Eva (leggy Kelsey Milbourn, in forthright “I’m gorgeous!” mode) shudders at the blast and goes on with her melancholy scene.
The hard-working tech crew, taking matters in hand on the big night when all their efforts must be finally aligned, are the major players in the first act. Costumes must be fitted, blackouts dealt with, and everybody is hungry for anything in sight. Techies eat whatever they can get their hands on to keep going, and we hear through our headset the refusal of a one valiant worker bee to go to the hospital with a bleeding wound, when an electric tape fix can let him get the job done. Talk about heroes.
The actors are most fun to watch in the second act, which opens with the ever-inventive Shannon Kearns, as the glamorous prostitute Siget. Laying flat out on Diggle’s stage, designed with audience chairs surrounding it on three sides, and stretching her yoga muscles, she suddenly begins a series of hilarious voice warm-ups, from throaty growls to high-pitched shrieks, then calmly makes way for the stage manager (a dauntless, efficient Danielle Pickard) to sweep up the fast food debris from the break.
Actors fight, flirt, and hold forth sporadically—anything to relieve the tedium while they wait to do a scene. Paul Taylor is the show’s aging male diva who comes to rehearsal in a dirty shirt he bought online “from a real duke,” haughtily challenging the costumer, director and playwright in his hilarious and ridiculous re-rant of his lines to find a more “evocative truth.”
Techies chatter and actors consider their work lives and career choices as the rehearsal creaks forward, nearing its minute conclusion. At one point, Eva complains about the idiotic letter she must read, “I feel the audience quietly dying,” she says. We feel her pain.
About the time we’re all about to throw in the towel on this world premiere, something begins to move through the techies and the actors—and we’re reminded of the communal hope we all share when everybody’s running full tilt and we’re not sure of the outcome, but we know we are at last moving in the same direction.
At two-and-a-half hours, 10 Out of 12 is takes its sweet time in delivering its message, but we feel the fatigue as well as the sense of how tough—and rewarding – it is to mount a play.