Off Wells, Alchemist Theatre, Life in the Theatre

I look back towards the doorway as I sit down. A trapezoid of light, thin, sharp and elongated, extends from the entrance, slicing the darkness that engulfs the lounge area facing the bar. In the middle of the day, the Alchemist Theatre amazingly devoid of light, defies the presumptive illuminating qualities of daytime. Drama lives in this space.

In the comfy chairs facing me, and on the plush velvet wall bench next to me, sit Jill Anna Ponasik who is sporting an irreverent pair of translucent blue acetate framed glasses and a blue t-shirt of similar tone, and Dave Sapiro the Alchemist’s utility knife-like resident ensemble lead. A casually dressed bearded gentleman exudes a presence, impatiently jittering a bit. I’m pretty sure his name is Jim. Given his demeanor I presume him at the point of belligerently exiting middle age. Aaron Koepec, the Alchemist’s Artistic Director, also joins us slightly disheveled, a customary appearance betraying his attentiveness.

I stopped down to hear a little bit about Aaron Koepec’s latest production, a rendition of Mamet’s Life in the Theatre. He lured Jill Anna into directing this piece. As the Producing Artistic Director for Milwaukee Opera Theatre, She’s accustomed to directing operas. 

Ponasik, not a stranger to the Alchemist Theatre, had a small role in the now cult-classic Alchemist production Invader! I hardly knew her an original doosie written and directed by Jason Powell back in 2009 (suddenly loud red alarm buzzers started ringing in my imagination). She produced another collaboration at the Alchemist with Powell in 2012 entitled Fortuna Time Bender vs School Sister of DoomWith Life in the Theatre, Ponasik takes on a stage piece for the first time.

Back Stops and the Inkwell of Love

“The story of Life in the Theatre could have taken place last week or in [19]42,” Ponasik offers, “It’s a drama centered on the Society of Theatre, however the central theme is really about the tensions between older generations and youth, which is a topic that spans time immemorial.”

The man I am remembering as Jim, chimes in to give a little more context to this work in the canon of Mamet. “This is the follow-up to Mamet’s first work American Buffalo, which was a smashing success. It’s written like a love letter to theatre. You might describe American Buffalo as a catcher’s mitt, Life in the Theatre would be a lace doily.”

From Understudy to the Grave

The play knits a 26 act dialog between stage-ripened actor Robert and fresh face John. Dave Sapiro who portrays John adds, “The young actor confronts the realities of ambition, and the presumption of having to be ruthless to make it.” Giving a little more away Ponasik offers, “Amidst the drama, there is a healthy dose of comedy in the story, absurdity often ensues.”

As the conversation winds through the thoughts of the ensemble, Jim becomes introspective “After 450 performances of Scrooge from [19]99 to 2012 Robert’s character is definitely within my reach.” Wait what? Nearly a decade and a half in The Rep’s production of the A Christmas Carol?

There in front of me, plain as homemade yogurt, James Pickering’s name is printed on the playbill. No wonder that name sounded so familiar. I glance again at “Jim”, who is looking like that guy at Outpost that might guilt you into buying reusable shopping bags, with beard, wire rim glasses and no top hat or long coat, just looks like a regular guy.

“There is a tension in the play of one actor facing constant pressure of living up to the standard and not stumbling, against the other actor’s drive to make the most of his chances to succeed,” Pickering has been here before.

By the Looks of It

When asked of the aesthetics of the play, Ponasik sardonically drawls, “Well we knew weren’t going to do an opera.” Turning slightly to Aaron she continued, “This is where Aaron will usually tell you he doesn’t like designing for other director’s shows. We went with the idea that the set would be an environment that the play could take place in.”

Koepec avoids complete encryption, “The play is staged as a memory.” Succinctly Pickering concludes, “We are riffing on the idea that [Rob and John], it’s one consciousness. The play will draw on the concept of [memory as] a tunnel.”

Wondering if there are clear artistic tensions that play out between the old guard and new guard, as an example I reference this months New Yorker which observes Improv as having become modern acting, rather than remaining just a technique. The Alchemist, long a haven for Improv comedians and some damn good ones, has successfully co-mingled a variety of stage acting techniques during its lifespan.

The question draws the ire of Sapiro, “Everything on stage isn’t valid all the time, but Method taken to the extreme is very questionable as well. That Jared Leto crap with Suicide Squad was unforgivable.” It’s safe to say the small stage can have a purist embrace too.

Ponasik shares that Life in the Theatre takes place mostly behind the scenes of the theatre in the play. “I’ve seen performances of Shakespeare in New York at the Globe Theatre where the actors are in the dressing room in every scene. It created an intriguing perspective shift for the audience.” Pickering tells it eagerly, “Viewing batting practice can be very entertaining.”

This is a huge playbill for a space that maybe sits 50. James Pickering is legend in the making that you won’t see in this intimate of performance very often. David Sapiro isn’t too shabby either. As for Jill Anna Ponasik, we know she can do opera, but can she do Alchemist Theatre? The Alchemist Theatre opens Life in the Theatre September 30, 2016 at 7:30pm, tickets are $29.



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