It’s a gift pass game. You can either keep the gift you’re given, or pass it to the next person and get first dibs on the next present. If you choose to keep a gift, it’s yours and you’re out of the loop. The game ends when everyone has a present. It’s a game of choices and calculated risk. In that respect, it’s like the theater.

Director Michael Lew ’03, his adviser — Theater Studies professor Toni Dorfman — and the cast of “Freedomland” stood in a tight circle in the Whitney Humanities Center Tuesday night before their last private rehearsal. Lew hid the gifts — plastic baggies filled with goodies — in a larger plastic bag. One by one he dished them out: some bags contained little chocolate hearts, others had only empty candy wrappers and others still held hearts floating in unidentifiable, brown, slushy goo.

Forty-nine hours before the opening-night lights would fade in on “Freedomland,” the “mad scientist” was still experimenting. As he had at the first rehearsal four weeks ago, Lew was trying to use unconventional metaphors to communicate his vision of the play world to his cast.

“I find harrowing the disparity between what I want to present and what the audience gets,” Lew explained later. “And it’s always a matter of my own shortcomings. If there was no disparity, I could sit back and smile in satisfaction. But there is and that’s the reason I keep going. You always try to get closer to some essence.”

No play will ever be one hundred percent perfect. No production will ever be “finished.” Never will Lew stop tinkering.

After Tuesday’s run-through, Lew gave his cast almost an hour’s worth of notes, praise and criticism. Then, he spent another fifty minutes one-on-one with Cameron Abadi ’03, working out Abadi’s monologue, which closes the first act, and other issues with Abadi’s character.

Before Wednesday’s dress rehearsal — open to a few invited guests and critics — the crew did some tinkering of its own. Overnight, the roof was shingled. Original paintings materialized on easels. The floor was resurfaced and painted. Extra boards of wallpaper were suspended to form a more distinct wall behind the set.

At seven o’clock, there was still no fireplace, no mantle and no refrigerator — key set pieces. About ten percent of the other props were missing as well.

Lew scurried around the set — not too frantically — sweeping the stage and arranging some of the furniture as dull clapping and chanting — a diction exercise — emanated from the green room where the cast was warming up. Someone bumped a platform on stage, causing a crucifixion figurine to crash to the floor.

“Oh, Jesus!” Lew said, and hurried to reset the props.

A few minutes later, producer Aaron Lemon-Strauss ’03 burst into Whitney, wheeling the fridge into place. Smith, who descended from the tech booth in the balcony to help, accidentally locked the door to the booth stairs. As Smith entertained thoughts of scaling the wall, Lemon-Strauss announced he had a key and let Smith back in.

Lew apologized for the delay to the five audience members and gave the go-ahead for the run to start. As actor Dave Laufgraben ’04 got into position, he whispered confidently, “A bad dress means a good show.”

Wednesday’s run was bumpy, a good omen to the superstitious in the cast, a wake-up call for the rest, and the kind of performance that reminded everyone what level of mental preparation they needed for opening night. Some moments had the audience members in stitches, others were rich dramatically, but the cast knew that the performance was not its best.

After the run, the cast squeezed onto the big white couch onstage for notes. Lew sat cross-legged on the floor; Smith and Lemon-Strauss sat behind him. Everyone commented on how they felt the show went.

Laufgraben: “We know all the jokes by now. We really need an audience’s confirmation of what’s funny.”

Lauren Rogers ’05: “Thinking that an audience — not our friends — is going to be sitting there judging us makes me just a little insecure about what I’m doing.”

Katie Vagnino ’03: “I’m just very confused and frustrated with myself.”

Sally Bernstein ’03: “Not having the props will really snap me out of a scene. I feel like I’m watching myself more than I’m immersed in a scene.”

Lemon-Strauss apologized for the technical problems, assured the cast that all would be fixed and tried to excite them with: “Tomorrow’s house is way oversold.”

Smith also added an encouraging note: “I’m still laughing. And I’ve seen every single act over and over and over.”

Lew advised the cast not to read reviews in the paper until after the last performance. Good or bad, reviews could affect how the cast approached the show.

“Someone who spends two hours with us doesn’t know what’s best for the show,” Lew said.

The cast was perhaps being over-critical of the performance, especially since comedic acting tends to feed off the audience’s energy. But with “Freedomland,” Lew and his cast have created a hybrid — a comedic drama. At first, the company milked the script for all of its potential humor. In later weeks, the cast toned down the comedy, trying to focus on the emotional center of the script.

“It’s hard to know how it’ll be received,” Lew said, wondering if and how much the audience would laugh. “Even if it turns all the way into “Freedomland: The Drama,” I’ll be happy that everyone created three-dimensional characters.”

After the notes session ended, the cast stayed seated on the couch. They started to talk with and over each other, tipping into laughter, rehashing memories from past rehearsals. They had become a family, much like the one they played on stage, only far more functional and caring, and — in their own opinions — just as hilarious.

When the family parted ways for the night, Lemon-Strauss collapsed into a chair in the back row of seats.

“Every minute I’ve been awake this week — which is most of the minutes — I’ve been thinking about and working on this show,” he said. “At 8 p.m. tomorrow, that’ll all stop. It’s not a gradient. It’s a sharp change. So stark. That’s very weird to me.”

Lew has accepted that by now.

“I’m not concerned by the impermanence of theater,” he said. He noted that a show can live on the minds of the audience, but admitted “there’s a little bit of sorrow with having to put it up and take it down so quickly.”

Lew plans to plunge into the theater scene in New York after graduation, and said he is looking forward to directing a show that will run for more than five performances.

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