Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Alchemist (2001)

I blame myself.

When the decision was made to produce Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, I was thinking that I would direct it. My wife's grandfather was an English professor at O.U. and one of his pets joys was the works of Jonson. After a shaky start I was growing to appreciate the old man, and his sense of humor (grandfather Calvin G., not Ben Jonson) and he was trying to make inroads to my affection by engaging me in conversation about classic works of drama. He had given me an one hundred year-old copy of this particular play and in reading it, I found the play utterly hilarious.

Me. I did. I had an idea of how to create a modern-dress version and that it would work. However, events came together in such a way that my wife and I were to expect our first child within a month of the opening. I was pretending to be the artistic director of a theater company, so I did what I thought anyone would do, I handed to project off to someone else.

When our child was stillborn, I lost all interest in everything, including and especially this project. I think I attended auditions, but maybe not, I have no memory of that. I attended production meetings, I approved of the design, loved the cast (it had a great cast) though I was not pleased with the length. It was going to be three acts, but so was Hamlet, two years earlier, you can do three acts if they are swift and exciting and compel people to see how it all turns out.

Attending the first dress rehearsal, I gave some basic notes to the director. There wasn't much I could do at that point. There was a lot of schtick which substituted for wit -- a bit about choosing a name for an apothecary's shop, which is funny out loud, became this elaborate gag that involved making rebuses which took away from the humor. However, the bit where they constructed a bong out of scientific tools was outright hilarious.

My one significant note involved volume. Everyone was yelling every single line. Every line had an exclamation point. I told the director to bring it down, it's unbearable. That was it, my signal contribution to Bad Epitaph's production of The Alchemist.

Thes note, however, was never shared with any single member of the company. Quite the opposite, in fact. On opening night the director gave the company this stunning, astonishing, jaw-dropping directive:

"Go twice as big as you have ever gone in your life."

The main character of Subtle was played by Nick Koesters. Our director told Nick Koesters to go twice as big as he had ever gone in his life. But it wasn't just Nick, Allen Branstein was given this note, too. "Twice as big."

As my man Bob Golthwait used to say, "Who gave the gun to the baby?"

Now, I am not going to suggest that opening night of Bad Epitaph Theater Company's production of The Alchemist was a howling, over-the-top crackfest. Heavens, no. Instead I will quote the critics:

"A disappointing torment of incoherent yelling." - James Damico

"It had audiences dropping like flies." - Keith Joseph

"I left after two hours." - Roy Berko

However, there was this generous observation from Linda Eisenstein in the Plain Dealer:

"Throughout the evening you can watch the alchemy of the comedy come and go as the revved up players slam about, chewing scenery, then suddenly snap into focus with an exquisitely choreographed bit of business."

I know she's referring to the bong.

If I were to isolate one major error in this production, it would be its length. The verse plays I have directed have succeeded or failed depending upon how much dedication I made to cutting the script, making sensible internal cuts to the verse line, and lots of them. The cast included some of my favorite people I have ever gotten to work with, the design was kooky and inspired, and many of the gags were truly hysterical. But in the desperate attempt to finish the piece in something close to three hours, they were going terribly fast, which contributed to be being terribly loud, and pushing very, very hard. Regardless of whatever else had been going on in my life prior to March 20, I should have cut the script myself.

To promote the show, we got airtime on the WKYC Channel 3 morning show. Most of these TV promotions feature the actors in the background, with the host and producer of whatever program is being featured chatting in the foreground, you barely hear the actors at all. We decided, therefore, to present some of the most visual scenes.

I blame myself.

UPDATE: Sending that video around the Facebook, several company members had the opportunity to comment upon how much worse the stage combat looks with a camera right in Nick's face.

Director Larry Nehring:
"If you show the faces in slapstick combat it looks serious. I remember wanting to grab the cameraman and pull him back to the audience POV. It's hard to answer a stupid question when your soul is yelling, 'stop saying its not funny when you aren't seeing it right!'"
Yes, it looks pretty ugly close-up. However, we did tell them that this scene was going to feature "stage combat" -- the host leads off the segment warning that a fight is about the happen. Then he suddenly gets the vapors and demands to know just what the hell is going on. That was awkward.

So, did it look more funny from the "audience point-of-view"? So glad you asked. Harris was in town for our son's memorial service, and he was on hand to record all of the recording. We dredge up odd bits of video, you decide: 

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