Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Appeal Of The Cell

Alchemist’s CLOSET LAND Taps The Dramatic Appeal of Incarceration

By Russ Bickerstaff
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In a few weeks, the Alchemist Theatre opens its production of Radha Bharadwaj’s Closetland.Set entirely in a cell, the play follows the interrogation of a children’s book author (played by Jenna Wetzel) by a mysterious authority figure (played by Aaron Kopec.) The stage play is adapted by Bharadwaj from the screenplay of her 1991 film starring Madeline Stowe and Alan Rickman. It should be interesting to return to a stage set as a place of incarceration . . . which ends up being a very popular place, as it turns out . . . here are some shows that have been staged locally in the past that all explore the stage’s powerful preoccupation with incarceration . . .


Coyote On A Fence

It’s kind of weird to think that I saw this one nearly half a decade ago with Next Act. It’s still remarkably fresh in my mind. David Cecsarini played an educated prisoner in a maximum security prison forced to deal with the prejudices of a casually brutal racist played by Jonathan Waynwright. The Off-Broadway Theatre really locked-in the reality of being locked-up with the uglier side of human nature.


Two Rooms

A man is taken hostage by terrorists in Lebanon. We see him speak in monologues—imaginary letters he sends his wife back home in America. Here we see to different people incarcerated in different ways. She becomes sort of a prisoner of a different kind to the room that used to be an office. It’s a very touching drama that I’ve seen staged twice . . . once in the basement studio theatre at UWM back in ’06. It was an In Tandem production with a kind of raw intensity that resonated with some pretty impressive strength in that space. Years later in ’08, I saw a Spiral production of the drama at Bucketworks that was almost as powerful. (Prior to its departure, Spiral Theatre did many of these plays . . . in retrospect, Artistic Director Mark Hooker seemed to have an interesting perspective on captivity.


Extremities

A man breaks into a home with the intent of raping a woman only to find that he’s become a prisoner in her home. She and her roommates hold him captive. I’ve seen a couple of different productions of this one. In March of ’06, I saw an Actor’s Group production of this at the Sunset Playhouse’s Studio theatre. The production featured a young Jason Waszak as the invader who becomes the captive with a really good cast of captors including Susan Currie and Libby Amato. The following August, I had the opportunity to see a Spiral Theatre production of it in the basement of the Brumder Mansion . . . possibly one of the more chilling places to see that kind of play. Katrina Greguska played one of the captors with a vicious intensity there . . . and with the captive shoved into an actual fireplace at one point, it was a highly memorable production.

Ulysses’ Crewmen

Formerly Milwaukee-Based Playwright Ben Turk’s political drama—the one he’d worked on for a lnog time and went on to tour the country with. A man (Turk) and the woman who holds him captive (Kate Pleuss.) No intermission. And you’re uncomfortably close to both of them. I saw this originally in a workshop environment (in August of ‘07.) They’ve performed this one for very small crowds and the feel of the imprisonment was always really palpable.

Someone To Watch Over Me

A group of men find themselves captured by terrorists in a dark room somewhere. Theres an American, a Brit and an Irishman. I’ve seen a couple of different productions of this one as well . . . The beauty of this piece is that it’s a group of people being held captive and we really never see the captors, so it focuses on the psychology of a group of people being held hostage who nearly tear each other to pieces. The first production I’d seen of this was a Spiral Theatre show in a tiny, short-lived studio theatre space. Mark Hooker played the American in the production with a kind of serene peacefulness that made for an admirable hero. Years later, I saw a Pink Banana production of the play at the Off-Broadway Theatre. Not quite as small as Spiral’s space, the Off-Broadway gave more space for the desolation. With a really good cast that featured a particularly memorable Nick Firer as the Brit and a beautifully moody Evan Crain set made this one very memorable.

Purgatorio

The most recent staged drama of incarceration didn’t even take place in an earthly cell. Again, David Cescarini played a man imprisoned . . . this time in the afterlife. Cecsarini played a man with strength, patience and a degree of arrogance who was interviewing—analyzing and perhaps providing therapy for a fiercely aggressive Angela Iannone. This was the third time I could remember the soon-to-be-gone Off Broadway Theatre serving as a prison in a drama. With Cecsarini and Iannone, the mutual interrogation of the two characters in question provides an interesting high water mark for the type of thing explored in Closet Land. Wetzel, Kopec and director Beth Lewinski have an interesting challenge ahead of them.

Alchemist Theatre’s Closet Landruns June 17th- July 3rd.

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