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Alchemist Theatre Stages ‘A Life in the Theatre’

Oct. 11, 2016
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The Alchemist Theatre’s production of the early David Mamet two-hander, A Life in the Theatre, is an exquisitely staged and sensitively performed offering. Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Jill Anna Ponasik directs (her debut in a non-musical/operatic genre), and her sensibilities as a choreographer and sonic expert do great service to the rendering. Each transition is seamless and rhythmic (think folding chairs snapped open and set down in perfect unison), ensuring visual and aural interest throughout every moment of this remarkably succinct work. Bolstering the excellent direction is smartly crafted lighting by Antishadows and sound design by Aaron Kopec. This is a script in which perfect timing is vital to communicating a great deal in a short span of time and all production elements deliver marvelously.

David Sapiro and James Pickering are masterful in their respective roles of a younger actor coming into the peak of his powers with a hearty dash of arrogance, and an older actor who is wise, sometimes petty and painfully aware of his own decline. Sapiro’s command of facial and vocal expression is especially commendable since Mamet’s spare and snappy dialogue depends upon its performers to imbue it with subtext. Here, the young actor, John, is both a scion of his time—veiling his impatience for the big time—and an archetypal hero fully dedicated to his craft and essentially receptive to the counsel of his elders. 

Pickering is heart-wrenching as the fading star, Robert, who seems to decide to mentor John for a host of complex reasons, ranging from a sincere sense of duty to the next generation to a desire to relive his own youth. Testament to his genius even when modes of expression are limited by staging, Pickering moves the audience to tears in a scene in which John discovers Robert spying on him while he rehearses alone late at night on a bare stage; Robert, in a moment of complete vulnerability, stands in the dark at the back of the house, begins to weep and admits to John, “You make me feel small.”

In the hands of these two actors, Mamet’s many passages of layered meaning shine as the linguistic and psychological gems they are. Moreover, although the script has a distinct cadence that includes a great deal of comedic repetition, the overall effect is naturalistic. Sapiro and Pickering show us the “staginess” of theater people’s interactions with one another—the bittersweet truth of how difficult true intimacy can be among members of a profession concerned with the exploration of intimacy. A sparkling meta-analysis of theater and humanity, Alchemist’s A Life in the Theatre is a must-see for theater and non-theater folk alike.

Through Oct. 15 at 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For tickets, visit alchemisttheatre.com.


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