Why do we love a backstage story so much? And this is the ultimate one, if you can even call it a story. Playwright Anne Washburn brilliantly gives us pure slice-of-life naturalism, sneaking us into a tech rehearsal in a small theater, complete with headsets for every audience member so we can hear all the banter. The genius of it is that it’s all small, incidental moments–snarky side chatter, interruptions, butch tech orders. Actors rehearse bits of a Victorian play while light and sound cues are set and reconsidered, costume choices are weighed, and the director coddles, kids and chides under deadline pressure.
So most of the time there’s no performance really, because we’re preparing a performance. The loose-limbed casualness of actors walking across the stage to get to the dressing room or an unselfconscious tech grabbing a mystery chip snack off the floor while sweeping up–they’re not in a play then, right? It’s so ticklish, I couldn’t stop grinning.
We hardly see the cast as actors, except those who play, well, actors. Thomas Ward as The Director character (as opposed to Undermain standout and actual director Blake Hackler) brings a light flippant wit and basic warmth to his job, a big, beleaguered man-child who ultimately wants the work done well. Danielle Pickard calls the cues and breaks authoritatively as The Stage Manager. Timothy Paul Brown is as alive as a bug in his offstage conversation as Jake. Kelsey Milbourn as Eva is never so real as when she breaks character. But it’s not a play of standout performances–every single person is equally part of the goofy ecosystem that results in a performance. And tantalizingly, all the ones we think of as actors–especially Paul T. Taylor and David Price–seem like they could very convincingly do the period drama that’s being rehearsed, and we kind of want to see it!
The Undermain, in addition to consistently seeking out challenging fare for Dallas audiences, also seems to love transforming the space. Every time I come, it’s a completely different set up–a circus tent in the round, an abstract mystery space, a basement workshop. The chairs are all of the cushioned folding variety, up on risers, therefore easy to move around. This time we were on three sides, fit around the very cluttered stage manager’s and sound mixing stations. Actual sound and light people are busy throughout as cues are called and changed to generate different effects. Some of the fun of seemingly being in on the act of collaborative creation made me think of that famous SNL sketch: “I need more cowbell!”
After a while, once we were all in on the tech rehearsal illusion, I started to want something to “happen”, like a plot that might be woven through all the little moments of this artifice of no artifice. And Washburn gives some tantalizing feints in that direction but never succumbs. So does it all come together then and add up to anything? In the slyest way possible, yes, absolutely yes. We come to understand that Washburn gives us every little moment in this funny little world because she loves every moment of it. You will too. 10 out of 12 is a five out of five!