10 Out of 12
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Get an inside snoop on the playmaking process with Anne Washburn’s detailed approximation of tech hell.
In Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which Theater Wit produced in 2015, playwright Anne Washburn depicted the incredible mutation that a single episode of The Simpsons might experience over the course of 80-plus (somewhat post-apocalyptic) years—how it could transform, sucking other stories and pop culture detritus into itself to become the founding myth for an entire civilization. In her new play 10 out of 12, Washburn is telling the story of another transformation, one that’s far more common, but no less fraught with difficulty. Directed here, as was Mr. Burns, by Theater Wit artistic director Jeremy Wechsler, 10 out of 12 is the story of a tech rehearsal, of how a group of artists come together to stitch—or sometimes haphazardly staple—a play together. It’s a show that is small in scope but absolutely epic in its attention to detail—not to mention a beautiful tribute to the utterly inartful process of actually making art.
The play charts the course of a single day of tech rehearsal for a new, unnamed play at Theater Wit. (The title refers to the standard working schedule for such rehearsals under Actors Equity contracts: 10 hours out of a 12-hour stretch.) As anyone who’s ever worked in the theater can tell you, technical rehearsals are as mind-numbingly tedious as they are absolutely essential. True to course, the play eschews traditional rhythms and instead settles into the unique surreality of the process. Washburn adds another layer of verisimilitude by giving each audience member their own headset that lets them listen into the backstage chatter between the stage management team, designers and backstage crew. (The playwright, Carla, is out sick with the flu, a fact that no one appears to be fretting over.) The lights are fiddled with over a half-finished set and the sound cues are endlessly picked at, all while the actors stand around onstage, playing with their costumes and generally goofing around to stave off boredom.
As the Stage Manager and The Director, storefront veterans Dado and Shane Kenyon perfectly capture the perfume of craft and professionalism that masks the scent of utter burnout. Actors Kyle Gibson, Christine Vrem-Ydstie, Eunice Woods and Gregory Fenner, who play the actors performing in the play within the play, all bring the kind of nuance that comes from firsthand experience. Adam Shalzi plays 10 out of 12’s most pitiable character, the lowly Assistant Director, a bright-eyed young thing whose chatty eagerness to please is excruciating. He’s the kind of character you hate to hate so much that you end up loving him. Oh, and then there’s the design crew, who are never seen but are who are voiced by some actors named [checks notes] John Mahoney, Martha Lavey, Barbara Robertson and Peter Sagal. For a bunch of no-names, they all do fantastic jobs. I see bright futures ahead for the lot of ’em. Sagal especially should look at maybe getting into radio.
And then there’s Paul, another actor in the show-within-the-show who’s played by Stephen Walker, and is 10 out of 12’s beating, mercurial heart. Paul is as much genius as he is jerk, a terror to everyone else involved and really the only person who cares that the play they’re doing isn’t very good. (It’s a period piece, set in the Victorian era, that when it’s not featuring weirdo dream sequences is trying so hard to be subtle that no one, not even the director, is sure what it’s actually meant to convey.)
Portions of Washburn’s script have been rewritten specifically to embed it in the world of Chicago storefront, and Paul is the kind of long-time storefront actor that local audiences and artists know all too well: The brilliant actor who cares only about the work, definitely does not care about other people’s feelings—not to mention that he’s also a raging misogynist—and whose rallying cry is, “We’re not getting paid enough to do shoddy work!” As the play progresses, the audience is treated to some of Paul’s intense inner monologues—one of the play’s few non-realistic flourishes—culminating in a final speech about the stubborn romanticism that lies at the heart of any theatrical endeavor. It’s a speech so tender that it’s almost sappy, but here it works—because the audience has spent the past two-plus hours watching just how damn hard it is to take those silly, stupid, beautiful dreams and notions and turn them into actual fucking art.
Theater Wit. By Anne Washburn. Directed by Jeremy Wechsler. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.