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Delivering on a promise of absurdist comedy
Casting British playwright Chris Lambert’s The Simple Process of Alchemy was never meant to be an easy task.
But director Kyle Hernandez clearly had no great difficulty for his contribution to this year’s UWI Festival of Plays on November 25.
Voila, Renaldo Frederick and Idrees Saleem!
Two outstanding thespians in whose young hands, along with a few others, falls the task of a promised resurgence of quality T&T theatre.
The exhaustingly busy pace of Lambert’s comedic farce calls for high quality theatrical timing and flawless chemistry between cast and production crew. Speaking of which, Alchemy relates the silly tale of two charlatan scientists who, among other things, conspire to concoct a love potion to stimulate the passions of the lovely Rosaline.
In all, the two actors play more than 20 characters including the two wacky scientists, Reynaldo and Fernando. (Renaldo) Frederick as Reynaldo is an easy fit. But he answers to 14 names in the play. Last seen by this writer as the March Hare in Zwena Joseph’s interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, Frederick’s preference for physical theatre prepares him well for Lambert’s multiple, zany roles.
Hernandez confessed to having a relatively more challenging task in casting Fernando - a problem resolved when he perhaps recalled Saleem’s masterful rendition of The Mad Hatter alongside Frederick last year for Alice.
It is true, as Hernandez notes, that the play “is simply meant to entertain and excite”, but the use of alchemical charlatanism over the years has been a singularly effective platform for delivery of biting satire. Whether clinically contrived or nalve, the several layers of absurdism and plain foolishness in the play combine to ridicule both outright folly and earnest endeavour, as with Ben Johnson’s 17th century classic, The Alchemist, from which Lambert might have learnt some lessons.
Hernandez’s stated claim to draw inspiration from German dramatist, Bertolt Brecht, also betrays obtuse socio-political intent. For instance, and rather controversially, after one bar of the national anthem at the start, puzzled members of the audience are asked to take their seats.
But the director is clear: “It is my duty as an artist to create art … that explores some form of societal plague and to utilise the stage as a vehicle for change,” his notes reflect.
There are farts and falls and folly – “plain old dotishness,” says Hernandez – but several effective moments of understated profundity. “The world is flat,” claims the Old Professor (Saleem), “and square like a misshaped pancake. There are four corners. This is well known.”
“But it is a falsehood.” replies Reynaldo, “Our whole civilisation is built on a foundation of lies; a foundation of square pancakes and superstition.”
Frederick and Saleem deliver their lines like old hands at the wheel. There are very few instances in which the dizzying pace of the action generates concern that between a hyperactive stage crew and the ridiculously busy two-man cast there would be slip-ups to slow the torrid pace – and when there were those moments, in stepped the wit and charm of the talented duo.
On lights and sound was freelance journalist/student, Paula Lindo, who also could not miss a beat together with stage manager Shedrack Worrel who led a team comprising the multi-talented Aryanna Mohammed together with Shanelle Cielto, Tavorona Nelson and Ann-Marie Dookie on costume and Shellyann Bailey on makeup.
For certain, if the audience thought the cast was busy, these members of the production team were equally focused on sustaining the scorching speed of the action onstage.
It was a daring venture into the wild world of Chris Lambert before a knowing audience of students more likely than not drawn from UWI’s Department of Festival and Creative Arts. Hernandez also laid claim to inspiration from French dramatist, Antonin Artaud, whose techniques of shock and awe are known to submerse audiences in the dissonance of the stage.
The script of The Simple Process of Alchemy makes achieving such an objective not as difficult as it might appear to be. All of this is also in fact a process made easier in the hands of a director who knows what he is doing and a cast who, in all the diverse components of their parts, find somewhat familiar comfort in the realities of T&T in 2016.
One word at the end. Encore!
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