Wednesday, June 24, 2015

30 (2015-2016): Review of 10 OUT OF 12 (seen June 23, 2015)

"4 Out of 5 (Stars)"
Stars range from 5-1.

With THE FLICK, Annie Baker demonstrated that watching three low-end employees of a tiny movie theatre fill three hours sweeping rows and scraping gum from seat bottoms could be mesmerizingly interesting. In 10 OUT OF 12, which runs close to two hours and 40 minutes at the Soho Rep, Anne Washburn has done much the same in exposing audiences to the crushing sense of stasis, interrupted by momentary crises, often experienced by theatre people during that period called technical rehearsals, when lighting, sound, and scenic elements are first brought into the process of preparing a production. Ms. Baker studied in Mac Wellman’s unusually successful MFA program in playwriting at Brooklyn College, and Ms. Washburn teaches in that program. One wonders if someone in Flatbush is presently conceiving a groundbreaking play about gardeners watching grass grow.
Bruce McKenzie. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
I say this facetiously, of course, but the truth is that these new plays have added something noteworthy, though not revolutionary, to our understanding of theatre’s ability to grip an audience through close attention to how the moment by moment minutiae of people managing specific jobs gives us insight into human behavior. In its depiction of how the many specialized theatre workers—actors, directors, lighting and sound technicians, stage managers, costumers, etc.—conduct themselves during what can be grindingly boring procedures, 10 OUT OF 12 harks back to certain plays by David Storey, which, in seemingly plotless terms, slowly expose the individuals involved in playing (offstage) a game of English football or building a tent for a wedding ceremony.
Conrad Schott, Bruce McKenzie, Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Although what we’re witnessing is a greatly conflated, episodic compression of the many hours spent during tech, mingling almost surrealistic interludes with straightforward ones, it doesn’t flinch—prospective audiences, take notice—from creating a sense of the same crushingly slow sense of progress experienced at the real thing. Ms. Washburn based her play on the notes she took during various tech rehearsals she attended over a five-year period, so the air of authenticity is thick. Having directed a couple of dozen plays myself, I know whereof I yawn. The miracle here is the extraordinary cohesiveness of the perfectly cast and technically impressive production, which Les Waters (artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville) has directed with an awesome precision that nevertheless inspires believability in every performance.
Bruce McKenzie. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
On the one hand, 10 OUT OF 12 (which means that, according to Equity rules, 10 out of a given 12 hours will be devoted to the rehearsal) is the kind of play and production that will strike chords of recognition and appreciation in the hearts of any theatre person who’s been there and done that; on the other, it may all seem like much ado about nothing to civilians who couldn’t care less about how a play is put on stage, and want to see a story and characters they can relate to. While some of the characters do get to express themselves in personal terms, all we really know about them is how they deal with their professional obligations, or what silly things they do to prevent the ennui from driving them up the wall, not about their lives outside the theatre’s womblike embrace. Apart from those playing the actors, who get both an actor’s and a character’s name(s), most are identified merely by their functions, i.e., Stage Manager (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Technician 3 (Jeff Biehl), Costumes (Rebecca Hart), Director (Bruce McKenzie), Sound (Bray Poor), Technician 2 (Garrett Neergaard), Assistant Director (Conrad Schott), Lights (Wendy Rich Stetson), and Assistant Stage Manager (Leigh Wade).
Nina Hellman Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The audience sits in bleachers facing a low stage on which David Zinn has designed what seems an only partly completed set comprised of, at stage right, a long wall, with a door set in it, built of unfinished plywood. When necessary, the entire wall, sitting on casters, can be rolled across the stage to expose a forest glade depicted on its back. Action occurs behind the audience, in the aisles, on stage, and behind the set. While the non-actor characters are dressed in normal everyday wear, the actor characters, once they’ve put on their costumes (designed by Asta Bennie Hostetter), first appear in 19th-century clothes, the women (Nina Hellman, Sue Jean Kim) in large hoop skirts; later, when scenes set in contemporary times are performed, the costumes change accordingly. There are, by the way, substantial play-within-a-play chunks, which offer tantalizing glimpses of the spookily odd postmodern drama—which includes lots of ghostly, Nosferatu-inspired hands—the actors are working on.
Conrad Schott (shadow), Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Since much of what transpires during a tech is heard only by those wearing headsets, each member of the audience gets a listening device to loop over one ear so they can eavesdrop on the substantial amount of back and forth shared among the techies. Ms. Washburn’s notes have been extremely useful in capturing both the tech-speak used in cueing and setting levels, as well as in expressing the inanities spoken during moments when not much else is going on. When thus isolated for our listening pleasure some of these overheard sallies—consistently delivered in a dry, off-the-cuff, naturalistic tone—can be hilarious. One, for example, features a hungry techie, offered half of his colleague’s sandwich, seeking information on each component, and finally deciding that maybe he’s not really hungry enough to indulge in his friend’s generous offer.
Conrad Schott (shadow), Bruce McKenzie (shadow), Sue Jean Kim, Nina Hellman, Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The play is divided into two acts by the fifteen-minute break announced by the stage manager for the company’s benefit. The second half turns out to be more conventionally dramatic than the first, largely because a sizable, uninterrupted scene comes screeching to a halt when the actor Paul (Thomas Jay Ryan) decides to interrogate the director about his dissatisfaction with how his character is written, while also subtly critiquing his fellow performer (Gibson Frazier). The scene is exceptionally well played by Mr. Ryan, whose Paul is tiresomely argumentative and rhetorically gifted, but completely impractical. Mr. McKenzie’s frazzled but generally low-key director, unwilling or, given his general air of quiet desperation, unable to engage in a long-winded discussion, somehow manages to fend him off, helped by the reaction of Mr. Frazier. Another dilemma ensues when someone has a bloody accident, but, as theatre tradition would have it, the show—or at least the rehearsal—manages to go on. Until it doesn’t, that is, and the next day’s call is announced.   
Leigh Wade, Sue Jean Kim, Bruce McKenzie (back to camera), Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
10 OUT OF 12 actually concludes by shifting to another mode in a charmingly sung and danced coda, choreographed by Barney O’Hanlan, exquisitely signifying a love letter to the theatre and the hardworking, mostly unsung artists and technicians who devote themselves to it regardless of the sacrifices (such as having to take temp work to survive) they must make. In a sense, it refutes a letter I happened to read on my subway trip home, written in 1884 by America’s leading star of the day, Edwin Booth, to someone seeking to become an actor and hoping for Booth’s encouragement. Hoping to deter the man’s aspirations, Booth says, in part: “It is a life of wearisome drudgery; and requires years of toil, and bitter disappointment, to achieve a position worth having. . . . Were I able to employ my thoughts and labor in any other field I would gladly turn my back on the theatre forever.” A far cry indeed from Ms. Washburn's uplifting message.
Sue Jean Kim, Leigh Wade, Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
10 OUT OF 12 being about a tech rehearsal, the technical components are extensively showcased, both when they’re working properly and when they’re not, but a loud shout-out has to go to Justin Townsend for his exceptional lighting effects and to Bray Poor for his memorable sounds. The excellence of their work helps demonstrate once again why the Soho Rep, for its play choices, direction, acting, design, and technical contributions, continues to be about the best and smartest small nonprofit theatre in the Off Broadway arena. 
Nina Hellman. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Thomas Jay Ryan, Gibson Frazier, Sue Jean Kim, Nina Hellman.

From left: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Bruce McKenzie, Gibson Frazier, Nina Hellman, Conrad Schott, David Ross, Sue Jean Kim, Garrett Neergaard, Leigh Wade. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

From left: Sue Jean Kim, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Garrett Neergaard (with headset), Nina Hellman, Bruce McKenzie, David Ross, Conrad Schott, Leigh Wade, Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes. 
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Soho Rep
46 Walker Street, NYC
Through July 18