Alchemist Theatre’s roam-through retelling of “Faust”
You know Faust.
You know this classic tale even if you’ve never Goethe’s book, or seen a movie, or heard a song in which someone sells their soul to the Devil for earthly pleasures. The story’s been told in endless variation for hundreds of years. Alchemist Theatre will tell it again in its own special way, starting Thursday (Sept. 29).
Writer-director Aaron Kopec has taken the faustian bargain to new levels of surreality with two interesting decisions. First, Alchemist’s Faust: An Evening at the Mephisto Theater is a play within a play. Just a part of it takes place on the actual stage; the audience will roam the entire Alchemist Theater and Bayview Lounge and encounter the play throughout the building.
Kopec places the story within a theater troupe in the 1920s. This company gives just one play, Faust, which it has run forever. Jonathan, head of the Mephisto Company, plays the title role. He’s struggling to hold the group together as several of his actors seek to take other roles or move on to other plays. Johnathon believes absolutely in what theater and art should be, but he is tempted repeatedly to compromise in order to both keep his company intact and to achieve worldly success.
Kopec says the decision to write a play-within-a-play was partly practical in a show that involves on-stage and back-stage drama. The approach created some interesting opportunities for collaboration. The on-stage action is a commercial and comical version of Faust written by the Wisconsin Hybrid Theater; Kopec added the “behind-the-scenes” drama the audience will discover as it follows the actors into other parts of the space. This juxtaposition comments on the art and business of theater: Sometimes, what happens on stage is nothing compared to the drama of life in the theater.
Kopec’s play is scattered among eight locations, ranging from a “backstage” area to a next-door speakeasy to a dark alley, all designed and constructed for this production. Audience members can follow any character they please, or any combination of cast members. As the show moves forward and the demons of the world overtake Johnathon and his troupe, you will not be pinned to a seat.
Kopec calculates a certain discomfort in all of this. Voyeurism is part of the appeal. To heighten the frisson, Alchemist will issue masks to each member of the audience. He also encourages you to wear black to the show. Kopec is costuming in this way to encourage patrons to lose themselves in the world of the Mephisto Theater Troupe.
“While it is sometimes great to make an audience feel uncomfortable while they witness such things,” Kopec said, “I’ve also noticed that audience members can look away [when certain things happen]. We are taught our entire lives to turn away when someone is changing clothes. Masks should help people feel that they don’t have to look away.”
Because the audience is free to roam, the technical blocking of Faust was intense and complicated. Kopec is confident that everyone will get the basic arcs of the on-stage and off-stage stories. Some scenes will repeat several times, to afford maximum exposure, and somes scenes performed in disparate locations will convey some of the same vital information.
Still, this Faust is like those choose-your-own-adventure books, as everyone’s experience will differ. The show is designed to draw attention in many different directions, to force you to decide for yourself the show you want to see.
Faust: An Evening at the Mephisto Theater opens at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29 at the Alchemist Theater, 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. It will run at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through Oct. Tickets are $17 in advance and $19 at the door; visit the Alchemist’s website.
The Cast: Gwen Zupan, Lineve Thurman, Sharon Nieman-Koebert, Sarah Dill, Sammich Dittloff, Libby Amato, Rebecca Segal, Beth Lewinski, Laura Meyer, Liz Whitford, Gracie Liebenstein, Joe Foti, Rob Maass, Erin Hartman, Melissa Freson, Amber Smith, Grace DeWolff, Anna Figlesthaler, Randall Anderson, Mike O’Toole, Lindsay L. Gagliano.