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Light, Shadow and Clutter in A Life In The Theatre

Oct. 2, 2016
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A Life in the Theatre

Opening night was packed. That was expected. Alchemist Theatre did an excellent job of putting together talent for their production of David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre. The talent is well-known and well-respected in the community. There were artistic directors and co-founders of a number of different theatre companies at the show. 

The production is tightly-executed with great attention for nuance and character development. James Pickering is a seasoned actor who cleverly renders all the strengths and weaknesses of an established stage actor. David Sapiro isn’t quite as well-known, but anyone who has seen him in a show knows that he’s get great dramatic gravity that works as well with the dialogue as it does with the spaces in between that dialogue. He’s a perfect match for Mamet. (He's great in Pinter, but he’s a perfect match for Mamet.) Add-in the direction of Jill Anna Ponasik and her very clever sense of flow and pacing and the actual performance of the show is . . . every bit as satisfying as one would expect.

What I was really impressed with opening night...what hit me in ways I didn’t expect was the overall experience of going to see the show. From entry into the theatre to the beginning of the show to the final exit onto Kinnickinnic Ave, this show is a very smooth experience--more so than previous productions have been able to manage.

Enter through the front door and there’s kind of a jarring feeling about the place. I associate Mamet’s Life in the Theatre with kind of a ’70s atmosphere...but it’s not exactly a disco vibe. It’s more of a smoky, little jazz joint/Tom Waits’ Raphael's Silver Cloud Lounge kind of a feel that I get when I think about much of Mamet’s stuff. The space inside the Alchemist in the Bay View Lounge on your way inis dark with dazzling lights and colors and . . . it’s a little overwhelming. I couldn’t tell if I was at a dance club or being abducted by aliens. 

There’s a very clever effect of having all those dazzling lights in the bar on your way into the show, though. A Life in the Theatre is set largely backstage. The action going on onstage has a very backstage feel about it as a couple of actors engage in conversation before, during and after shows. By contrast, the bar and the world beyond the stage feels . . . like the stage. We enter the show and we’re climbing through the dazzling world of life . . . offstage to get back stage where the play is. It's like a mirror reflection of popular perception of theater. A smart, little stylistic inversion of cliche. Okay: so I may be reading a bit too much into what is essentially a really fancy se of lighting cues in the bar on your way in, but it had a very nice contrast to the set. 

The lighting design inside the theatre is much more subdued and modulated. Antishadows does another great job of putting together a very sophisticated texture without upstaging the actual action. We get inside the theatre and the stage is absolutely cluttered. Look closely and you’ll see bits from previous Alchemist productions. Aaron Kopec’s scenic design drapes the space around the actors with a crazy tapestry formed from props and chairs and various elements that suggest the rugged durability of the stage and human imagination. We’ve climbed through the clean, stylishly blinding lighting of the bar and into a space that feels dense and cluttered without being messy, disorganized or claustrophobic. Everything is exactly where it should be even though it feels like a very awkward place to inhabit. It’s kind of a visual representation of the workshop of storytelling itself. 

The props in the space come together with the gravity of the moment in the dreamy fragmented fugue of the show. Pickering and Sapiro occasionally are called upon by the script to engage in action meant to appear onstage. The seemingly random bits of prop and backstage detritus form themselves into scenery with a smart swagger that makes the flow of action feel very graceful. It’s a really good script. From beginning to end, Alchemist does an excellent job of breathing life into he corners of the production.

Alchemist Theatre’s staging of A Life in the Theatre runs through Oct. 15 on 2569 S Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket reservations, visit the Alchemist online. 

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