Alchemist of Light
nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
August 19, 2009
Georges Melies is best known today as a French filmmaker who made many innovations in trick photography and special effects. Nicknamed the "Cinemagician," he created the stop trick and pioneered other devices like time-lapsing, dissolving, and hand-painting his film. His background as a magician and vaudevillian was incorporated into his direction of more than a hundred films including A Trip to the Moon, Baron Munchausen's Dream, and The Damnation of Faust. Bankruptcy and the French Army ruined most of his films' archives. Later he returned to the stage and was awarded the Legion of Honor.
His films have influenced many in the field and have been referenced numerous times. Having seen some of his work as well as their creative offshoots, I had high hopes about seeing this play about Georges Melies come to this year's FringeNYC.
Playwrights Tom Bisky and Len Fonte set this play in Paris at the Theatre Robert-Houdin in October of 1914, a time when a stalemate was happening between forces during World War I. The Germans converged around the city and Georges Melies was through making films.
Entering the Connelly Theatre, I was impressed by the selective pieces set designer Szu-Feng Chen put together to give the impression of a Parisian vaudeville house: a trunk, a sarcophagus, and a non-electric film projector. The actors enter at the top of the show carrying some iconic scenery from Melies' films such as the moon that was hit in the eye with a spaceship and a big musical note. Izzy Fields's costumes deserve praise for evoking the time without drawing too much attention to themselves while adding some authenticity to the production. Then Peter Smith's video and sound design were neatly employed as A Trip to the Moon was "hand-cranked" onto an upstage screen.
Then the actual play began and my hopes were dashed. In fairness, the playwrights took an ambitious approach to the subject. Rather than straight biography or short variations on themes in Melies's life, the writers have chosen to center the play around the ideas of his work.
The play begins by giving the context of the world at that time, and then moves to cover Melies's achievements. "Can't you see this is the worst time for a Faust? We're at war with Germany." He becomes set upon by two robbers. One is mean and accidentally-on-purpose breaks the moon prop with his fist. "I'm all thumbs." The other is an innocent German. "The film machine. Where does the money come out?" After a series of intimidations and threats, more Parisians enter randomly to avoid a storm. They begin to have wagers with Melies and argue over whether reality or illusion is better.
Often I was confused about what was at stake and each member of the cast—all with impressive credits—seemed to be employing defensive acting methods. They spoke too quietly or with lots of bluster. They talked at each other rather than to each other. While they all had decent moments, particularly Colin Chapin's hypnosis speech and Marsha Everitt's reaction to the Baron Munchausen film, those moments were often ruined or extended to the point where they lost their welcome.
A more developed dramatic structure in the script is needed. Also, while Sherry Teitelbaum's staging is fluid, I craved many more moments where I cared about what happened with these characters. In the end, this play about magic needed a lot more of it put into its making.