Vanishing Act: “A Life in the Theatre” at The Alchemist

by Jeff Grygny

life-in-theatre-james-pickering-david-sapirosmall

James Pickering and David Sapiro

“Ephemerous, ephemerous,” the old actor mutters to himself.
Is it the spontaneous utterance of an existential feeling? Or did he want someone to ask him what he meant? The younger actor doesn’t ask— not even if he meant to say “ephemeris” (meaning “an almanac,” which doesn’t make sense) or “ephemeral” (meaning “insubstantial and transient,” which does). Anyway you look at it, the moment illustrates the ambiguity and impermanence of the actor’s art: that of summoning emotions, images and people out of the printed page and into warm, breathing life, repeated perhaps, but nevertheless disappearing, as Prospero said, “into thin air.”

It’s one of many such moments in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre, now playing at Bay View’s Alchemist Theatre. If you heard about Mamet’s ugly clash with the little company, you might be surprised that they dared to put on another of his plays: Mamet boorishly had their production of Oleanna shut down last year by lawyer’s order, because he didn’t approve of its cross-gender casting (where his scripts are concerned, he’s a strict originalist). But Mamet’s punchy masculine rhythms have always struck a chord with The Alchemist’s impresario Aaron Kopec. And anyway, when James Pickering mentions that he’d like to do a certain play at your theater, you’d be an idiot not to do it. Which is exactly how this show came to be. Pickering, a grand old man of Milwaukee theater if there is one, with time and inclination to do a two-man show on one of Milwaukee’s smallest stages, can jolly well just do that if he wants to. For local theater lovers, it’s an event not to be missed.

If a typical Mamet play is like an oil painting, all brash colors and deep shadows, this 1975 script, done at the time of “peak Mamet,” is like a watercolor. His usual macho head-butting is still here, but it’s muted into polite exchanges. What’s unsaid is more important that what’s said in these elliptical, banal, fragmentary conversations. There are the usual unfinished sentences and interruptions, and a bit of good old profanity as the play unfolds in a succession of short scenes that alternate backstage banter with clips from the amusingly wretched plays the two actors play in the course of their professional relationship. We witness offstage gaffes, blown lines, and wardrobe malfunctions—all minor hazards of the trade. It’s quite funny, in the way Larry David brought to Seinfeld and perfected in Curb Your Enthusiasm: brushed with embarrassment and melancholy.

Pickering’s Robert, the seasoned actor, is old school, full of protocol and superstitions. He often seems to be trying to pass something on to the younger actor, John, played by local favorite David Sapiro. But he seems express it only in potted analogies and zen-like aphorisms. Or is he just a mildly pretentious blowhard trying to impress the newbie with artsy mumbo-jumbo?  On the other hand, John—is he really as receptive as he seems? Is he just being polite? Or is he biding his time until he can get something from the old man and move up? Is their seeming friendship real affection? Or simply affected? The play reminds us that actors are professional dissimulators: it’s their job to make the artificial seem authentic.

Director Jill Anna Ponasik heightens this sense, steering her actors towards naturalism: they could be playing themselves, for all we know. This results in a certain flatness—even when “acting” together, there’s little variation in characterization (with the notable exception of an over-the-top funny scene in a life raft, played in ripe English accents). Ponasik’s specialty is directing opera, and she creates a percussive between-scene score as the two men perform a dance dragging trunks, tables and chairs around with much banging and scraping. Impressive as this is, the novelty wears off pretty quickly, only to pique as some telling variation occurs. We see the theatrical season pass, measured in coats put on and taken off, makeup applied and removed, “goodnights” said, phone calls made— which builds up a sense of an actor’s life, layer by layer. In between there are moments of comedy and moments of shame; we wince for John when he flubs an entrance. An onstage meltdown over a missed cue is hilarious, but also heartbreaking, as we see the first rift in their cool but palpable friendship. As John piles up good reviews, Roger becomes more brittle. In one alarming scene he seems to have hurt himself— but is it a real crisis, or just a self-dramatizing attempt to win sympathy? The play gives us no clear answer. The final scene brings real comic pathos when Robert hides in the empty audience eavesdropping on John rehearsing a Shakespearian monolog.

The real play happens between the words. To the intent observer, Pickering and Sapiro create a feedback loop as their performances ambiguously inform and reflect each other, inducing a kind of vertigo, like two facing mirrors. Art is the mirror of life, it’s said. A Life in the Theatre reveals a world of uncertainty, reflecting reflections, and echoing echoes; like words written on water, ephemerous.

If plays are like drinks, this one is fine cognac: strong, smooth, and to be savored.

The Alchemist Theatre presents
A Life in the Theatre
by David Mamet
directed by Jill Anna Ponasik

playing through October 15th

www.THEALCHEMISTTHEATRE.com

Crazy Old Man: The Rep’s powerful “Man of La Mancha”

by Jeff Grygny

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Photo by Michael Brosilow

If some retired attorney suddenly thought he was a superhero and went out to fight crime dressed like Batman, we’d recommend him for medication. That’s exactly how it is with Man of La Mancha’s Don Quixote, the elderly landowner who decides to be knight-errant. But the 1964 musical makes the old lunatic something more: a stand-in for all our noblest (if unrealistic) ideals, trammeled in the muck of everyday life, yet steadfast to a fault. As delivered by Milwaukee Repertory Theater under Mark Clements’ skillful direction, this Tony-winning Broadway warhorse achieves its full emotional power. This is thanks in no small part to the magnificent voice of Nathaniel Stampley in the title role, as well as music director Dan Kazemi’s passionate interpretation of Mitch Leigh’s rousing score, which blends brassy bombast with the fiery touch of flamenco guitars. The result is tremendously moving; if your eyes don’t tear up a few times during the show you probably also hate Christmas and puppies.

Dale Wasserman’s book is loosely based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes —loosely, as in: it completely inverts Cervantes ruthless send-up of the chivalric romances that were as popular in his time as superheroes are today. In Don Quixote, Cervantes comes off as something like a 17th Century Lars Von Trier: snidely puncturing chivalric pretensions, there’s no quotidian grime he won’t wallow in. The Don Quixote of the novel usually brings chaos in pursuit of his ill-conceived quest, and if he doesn’t end up getting thrashed, his dim sidekick Pancho usually does. In sharp contrast, Wasserman’s book elevates exactly the romantic view that Cervantes scorned. This 60’s era tribute to a misguided battle against evil is especially ironic when you recall that the same year Man of La Mancha opened on Broadway, the United States sent troops into Vietnam for the first time. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is a textbook illustration of “quixotic” —and not in a good way. Even those who passionately battle for social justice are not immune to tilting at windmills. In short, this is a play for anyone with a heightened sense of mission, both as an inspiration and as a warning.

Director Clements keeps the show rolling through moments of high spirits, low comedy, grim anticlimax, and finally a kind of lofty tragedy. The show is set in a Spanish prison where Cervantes is held due to some bureaucratic offense against the Church. Handily, he happens to have a trunk full of theatrical gear, and to save his precious manuscript from the prison latrine, he enlists his cellmates into an impromptu telling of Don Quixote. This works beautifully on Jack Magaw’s monumental prison set, taking on magical atmospheres under Jason Fassl’s ingenious lighting design. Cervantes’ manservant, acting as stage manager, hands out costumes and props, instructing prisoners how to pantomime horses and such, and the story takes off. The sturdy actors throw themselves into clever double characterizations; we see them as prisoners taking roles in Cervantes’s drama—whether willingly, delightedly or grudgingly—then gradually inhabiting their parts as both we and they become absorbed in the tale.

Alvin Crawford brings warmth and humor to the prison boss who accepts the part of a sympathetic innkeeper; Michael Accardo and Michael J. Farrina deliver sparking comic performances as a traveling barber and Quixote’s hapless squire Sancho. As a kindly priest, Jonathan Gillard Daly adds a certain madness of his own, and when he sings De profundis clamo ad te —from the depths I cry to you, Lord—we get a fleeting sense of the show’s existential heart. Matt Daniels as an adversarial nobleman delivers a worthy, if nasty, voice of reason. And if Stampley seems a bit too hearty to represent the emaciated “Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” he brings indispensible authority and commitment; his manic grin when Quixote is knighted is the stunned expression of a man whose dream has finally come true. The role of the tavern whore Aldonza, whom Quixote takes for his ideal lady Dulcinea, is played by Leenya Rideout with uncommon subtlety: we see both a nameless prisoner and the pitiful woman she is enlisted to play gradually allowing herself to take strength from Quixote’s kindness, even though his devotion is delusional. And after the curtain call, fully half of the actors whip out guitars for a delightfully energetic reprise of the title song.

Sure, the lyrics can be a bit hokey and middle of the road. But Man of La Mancha seriously engages Cervantes’ complex play between literature and reality, and the role of poetry in a prosaic world. It gives solace by honoring a vision of goodness, even in the face of disheartening truths. It offers the aged precious dignity, even when failing body and mind puts them into humiliating circumstances. And it tips an ironic hat to the artists, who keep on offering inspiration to a world that often seems to want everything but.

Knight-errantry might be more about ourselves than the people we’re supposedly helping; there’s a murky zone between high ideals and mere grandiosity. Yet even knowing this, there’s  something about Don Quixote that moves us deeply and gives us heart—and that’s probably for the best.

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre presents
Man of La Mancha
book by Dale Wasserman
Music by Rich Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion

playing through October 30