Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011

The Stages Are Everywhere: Alchemist's FAUST

The stages multiply beautifully in Aaron Kopec’s latest

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Alchemist Theatre’s annual Autumnal shows have been a lot of fu over the years. Playwright Aaron Kopec has outdone himself with a staggeringly complicated little piece of theatre that’s simple and visceral enough to be almost universally accessible. While it is superficial (and even downright silly) in places, it’s got a depth to it that’s a lot of fun to roam around in.

Set in 1923, the story centers itself on a group of struggling actors in Milwaukee. The acting troupe is scarcely able to scrape out a living. A deal is struck—they have been offered the opportunity to do a recorded audio version of their latest show. The lightened, commercial version of a poetic drama threatens to compromise art for money in a variation on the traditional tale of deals struck with dark forces. It’s more than just illusion, though . . . there’s talk of a dark figure walking around the shadows who just might be the antagonist spoken of in the original legend.

The rest of story is kind of subjective to how an audience floats through it. The story plays out on multiple stages throughout the basement and ground floor of the Alchemist Theatre building. As audience members, we are only capable of interacting with some of the characters—these are those who also end up selling drinks in various places throughout the space. Not a completely interactive show, interaction forms part of the narrative. Everyone carries their own personal theatre with them through a space, which allows for an incredible amount of intimacy with actors and story.


Audiences guide themselves through the space, choosing what kind of experience they want to have individually. Scenes take place simultaneously throughout the space. On the main floor, there’s a bar and a theatre. In the basement there’s a religious sanctuary, a small bar area with Jazz Age exotic dancers Sister Hope (a sweetly sympathetic Lineve Thurman) and Sister Jealousy (a stylishly shadowy Libby Amato.) The bar is tended by a playfully dark Joe Foti. I bought a hair of the dog from him, but I could’ve just as easily crossed the basement Towering Rob Maas as a grinning devil in a cozy little space that seemed to perpetually attract large groups of people with a dark charisma.

 

I had the pleasure of attending the show with my wife. Somewhere in the midst of things, I suggest to her that we make it upstairs to hang out at the bar for a bit. Along the way, we ran into another devil altogether. We caught a bit of an interaction between the devil of Sarah Dill and an actress downstairs before finally making it to the bar upstairs.

 

Randall Anderson was tending bar in the role of a guy named Lloyd. I ordered a beer from him. My wife got something stronger. After serving us, Lloyd could be heard talking to company member Hazel (Sharon Nieman-Koebert) about someone being around—feeling a presence. It’s casual talk, but there’s an ominous sense about it. You wouldn’t catch it if you weren’t specifically listening to them. My wife points out to me that the woman onstage is singing a ‘20’s lounge adaptation of a Lady Gaga song…delicately arranged by an unseen Jason Powell on Piano. In walks ingénue Margarete (Liz Whitford.) We’d seen her in the theatre watching a Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre-style radio adaptation of the traditional Faust legend. Here she was kind of serene walking into the bar, having a few words with Lloyd. A little bit later, Grace DeWolff walks in the role of Johnathon—the author-actor destined for great things.


The conversation between the two characters breathes pleasantly through Johnathon is understandably smitten with Margarete. We watch as Jonathon slowly works-up the courage to walk over and say something to her. It’s a gentle, furtive conversation that develops between the two of them. And we’ve seen this sort of thing a million times before on stage and screen . . . it’s a simple dramatic enactment of two people tenuously expressing an attraction for each other, but somehow this is more potent because they’re moving around in the same space that we are.

And I guess that’s what makes Faust so powerful—we’re relating to the action in a space that we’re also interacting with, albeit on a superficial level. It almost feels kind of uncomfortably voyeuristic staring at this couple as they’re having this conversation because it has only the faintest hint of transcendently artificial theatricality. And just as that starts to feel weird, in walk Amato as Sister Jealousy and  Amber Smith as the sinister German businessman Rand. The two openly watch the proceedings, discussing the two of them in a way that makes the rest of us in the bar feel a bit more comfortable. It might not happen again, but the night my wife and I were at the show, there weren’t many people in the bar for that scene. The show sold out its entire opening weekend and there WAS quite a crowd in the theatre, but it was kind of surprising just how many moments there were like that where the rest of the audience ends up somewhere else an there you are with a couple of characters having a conversation all alone but for you…no two people are going to experience this the same way.

DeWolff is really enjoyable in the role of a man of heroic levels of artistic integrity. It’s a fun mutation of the heroically epic man vs. evil premise. And while it’s not deeply brilliant or staggeringly insightful, playwright Aaron Kopec could’ve the drama’s entire substance on the immersive, multi-stage gimmick. That there’s substance at all beyond the format of the drama is a huge accomplishment considering the fact that everyone’s distinct experience of the story is going to be different. Creating a cohesive thematic narrative that works through all of the different possible scene combinations would have been a tremendous challenge.

It's a totally immersive night at the theatre. In a bigger market, this show would fins a home and run indefinitely. At the Alchemst, the show runs through the end of the month. A show like this isn’t going to be repeated. This is one of the single most unique theatre experiences I’ve ever had. Precisely why this is defies easy definition. Somehow the whole thing ends with a sign along from some journey’s early 1980’s escape and though it’s completely anachronistic, it makes perfect sense.

Alchemist Theatre’s Faust: An Evening At The Mephisto Theatre runs through October 29th. For ticket reservations, visit the Alchemist Online.

 


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