Backstage Pass

Terry Dodd's First Night or Whatever was commissioned to be the first play performed in the Byron Theatre at the University of Denver's new, multimillion-dollar Newman Center. It's a fitting debut choice, because the play is all about theater itself. It takes place in a dressing room, where a cast made up of students and a handful of seasoned professionals is preparing for a performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night; or What You Will.

First Night or Whatever is an ensemble piece in the fullest sense of the term: Not only does it rely on the cast's generosity and willingness to work together, but it is, as a whole, bigger and more significant than the sum of its parts. Dodd is exploring the way disparate people come together to create a play and how the process shapes those people, as well as just what theater is and why it matters. As a critic, I ponder these questions myself. Why do people continue to pour their creativity into this art form? Why, given the availability of movies and television, do audiences still attend performances? One of the reasons is the presence of the actor right in front of you, engaged in the hugely risky venture of shucking his own persona and assuming another. As First Night suggests, this is a terrifying enterprise, a journey without maps deep into an unknown country.

As the evening begins, Marcus Waterman, playing the director, Michael, welcomes the audience; apparently, we're all patrons at some kind of ritzy opening-night party. He muses on the fact that Twelfth Night essentially begins when another, unchronicled story ends: the shipwreck that leaves Viola stranded on the coast of Illyria. Echoing the words of the Chorus in Henry V -- "On your imaginary forces work" -- he urges us to imagine ourselves shipwrecked.

In the dressing room, the actors prepare. The costumer hurries through; people joke, bicker and apply makeup; the dialogue is naturalistic, discontinuous and discursive. The play's focus shifts from person to person and group to group; crises arise and dissolve. We're in a hothouse world in which personal concerns and insecurities perk along beneath a flow of theater in-jokes: What do you say if you forget your lines while performing Shakespeare? Something like, "I'll tell thee more anon." What if it's Mamet? "Fuck you." Certain phrases become leitmotifs, weaving the evening together. Michael haunts the dressing room, and he, too, provides a unifying element. It's a well-written role, and Waterman gives it a first-rate performance. Good directors are often as smoothly and professionally sympathetic as good bartenders. They pat hands and murmur compliments, but what they're really thinking is, "How can I get this attack of insecurity or efflorescence of ego under control before it ruins my production?" Waterman has this manner down pat. His Michael is witty, mournful, humorous, complex and manipulative; every now and then, he lets you see that what motivates him is a deep and genuine love for theater.

The play does have some problems. It's occasionally talky, repetitive, lecture-y or static. There are also a lot of characters, and while I'm sure Dodd has mapped off-stage lives for each of them, I had trouble remembering who was who. Some of the plot points could be stronger. Before his entrance, we hear a lot from the student actors about Allen St. Germaine, the middle-aged star playing Malvolio; they portray him as a monster of vanity and ill temper. But if Allen, played by Denis Berkfeldt, enters like a lion, he soon turns into a huggy bear, with chastely worshipful feelings toward Talia, the leading lady, and a sad secret of his own. A nastier Allen might have added a genuinely piquant note.

Then there's a lot of talk about a bouquet left for Talia, along with a quote from one of Caliban's speeches in The Tempest. The flowers aren't a particularly interesting development, but the quote could be. Caliban's words are uncannily beautiful, but you wonder what kind of person would use this half-mad, half-human creature as his spokesperson. The mystery is resolved quite easily, however. The suitor is another of the actors; he and Talia smile happily at each other when she finds out, and that's the end of it.

There are some wonderful images in First Night. One of the actors, stranded in traffic, is rescued by mounted police and rides to the theater on horseback ("Think, when we speak of horses, that you see them..."). There's also some fine writing, as when Talia describes her father's death to the others. Then there's the moment when the director plays evocative music and the cast listens silently, each actor searching for some truth about character in the sound. This sequence continues for several minutes, with both playwright and director trusting the audience to listen and think.

The cast is uneven in terms of experience, but no one really flubs. Though Jenny Dempster doesn't yet have the stage presence to convince us of Talia's charm, she delivers the monologue about her father movingly. Matt Cornish is fun to watch as the terrified and nauseated understudy who may have to replace Sebastian; Kim Axline is a lively and matter-of-fact costumer, and Berkfeldt gives a solidly reliable performance as Allen. Tracy Shaffer, cast as Maria in Twelfth Night is, aside from Waterman, the strongest actor on stage and the most fun to watch. Dodd has been teaching playwriting at DU for ten years, and he seems to have been observing his students closely. One of First Night's underlying themes is the passing of time and the different realities confronting seasoned actors and very young ones.

An Indian writer and director, Rustom Bharucha, is quoted in a recent Guardian article as saying that the important question is not, as some believe, what remains when the play ends, but rather "When the play ends, what begins?" The final scene of First Night pulls together everything that has gone before and invokes the beginning of a new journey.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman