Aaron Kopec's Bedtime Allegory For The Information Age
First impressions of HELP WANTED with Alchemist
So I saw Aaron Kopec's Help Wanted last night. It was opening night. The tiny Alchemist theatre was absolutely packed. Having seen other shows written by Kopec, I'd expected to like the show. Didn't expect to love it, though. And I did. It's so rarely I'm offered a pleasant surprise. The act of previewing shows or even writing listings on them means that I'm doing research on them and getting critics' opinions on previous productions via internet. It's so rare that there's a world premiere piece that I get the opportunity to be truly surprised by. Such was the case with Help Wanted.
I guess what might have thrown me was the degree to which the promotion for the show traded on its sexiness. And yes, the show is very sexy in places, but much like the Marjory Lotus character at the beginning of the play, it is using its sexuality to advance something a lot more sophisticated and captivating than sex alone. This is the story of a business machines corporation at the dawn of the information age. And though Kopec isn't specifically talking about IBM here, he's using aspects of the history of IBM to build a really interesting myth about the dawn of the information age and the rise of the multinational corporation. (And actually, it helps your appreciation of some of the fine print of the script if you familiarize yourself with the early history of IBM before you see the show...) All this and the nature of human desire as reflected in a rather interesting executive/secretary relationship. (Think Steven Shainberg's 2002 film Secretary mixed with an allegory about the birth of the current socio-politico-economic era.)
Kopec does a really good job of jugging various cultural elements. We see a kind of power women could have (and likely DID) hold in office culture prior to the women's liberation movement. We see the rise of a new kind of figure in the business world in the character of Rand Dandrich (as played by Clayton Hamburg.) At the beginning of the play, he's an awkward, socially autistic numbers geek. But it's precisely those kinds of geeks that come to be the real power players in the new information economy that was sort of in its embryonic stages back in the 1940's when the play was set. Not to give too much away, but Kopec's script includes a climactic scene where Hamburg heroically . . . calls a train station. It's a brilliantly novel bit of heroism in a really well-rounded script.
Clayton Hamburg makes the transition from awkward nebbish to smooth head of business look so interesting that its easy to forget what a dramatic change it is from beginning to end. Hamburg is having a really good month between a staggeringly good performance here and a short he wrote for the Pink Banana show that is currently running at the Next Act Theatre space on south water. His Clean Up on Aisle Six was one of my two favorites in the program and even managed to overshadow my appreciation of the Rich Orloff piece that followed it . . . and I really like Orloff.
Anna Figlesthaler plays the female lead with a great sense of inner strength that the character clearly needs. She's got an appealing complexity in the role and a really solidly expressive chemistry with Hamburg.
The acting was really good as well . . . Michael Keiley makes a really impressive appearance here as the old school head of the corporation . . . a larger than life figure who built the corporation with his bare hands . . . and Keiley makes it look like he probably could have done entirely by himself. A very cool performance. Once again Randall T. Anderson shows that he has the ability to make a really stylish impression on a production, here largely as a supporting character who is savvy enough not to upstage the rest of the action.
The script and the acting . . . and the costuming were all good enough to overcome some of the shortcomings in production. Probably my single biggest problem with the show was the Love Theme from Bladerunner. I really like the work of Vangelis. I've listened to the soundtrack to that movie . . . probably ten times as many times as I'd seen that movie. So when I start to hear the Love Theme from Bladerunner I'm picturing Harrison Ford and Sean Young with visuals by Ridley Scott and Jordan Cronenweth. And when the music plays here I'm getting Clayton Hamburg and Anna Figlesthaler (which is great) but with visuals by a guy who was working on the script, the set, the lights, the sound design and acting in the show. So Aaron Kopec, who is evidently really good at a great many things might not have had quite as much time to say . . . build a set that lived up to the type of design that the Love Theme from Bladerunner would have had me personally visualizing. Jean Giraud's influence on that film was amazing . . . as was Ridley Scott's. Normally I'm so engrossed in a script this good that production elements don't bother me, but the sound of that particular piece sort of jarred me out of the beautiful fugue of the rest of the show. This was a fairly minor concern on my part, though. You don't see a show like this for the decoration.
In any case, I loved the show. Go see it. And while you're at it go see Hamburg's short in the Pink Banana thing before it vanishes from the stage the way Pink Banana shorts do every year . . .
Help Wanted runs through June 23rd at the Alchemist Theatre for ticket reservations, visit the Alchemist Theatre online. A concise review of the show appears in this week's Shepherd-Express.
And as of this posting, there are still two more performances of the Pink Banana shorts program as well. Hamburg's Clean Up on Aisle Six and the rest of the show has 7:30pm performances tonight and Saturday night.