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Alchemist goes punk with NY Stories Trilogy

The Alchemist Theatre has always had a sort of devil-may-care attitude, with co-owner Aaron Kopec writing or commissioning whatever strikes his fancy — whether horror story, classic Shakespeare or zany comedy.

In 2015, he’s going full rock and roll, 1970s style.

Throughout the first half of the year, the Alchemist is staging an ambitious trio of plays: the New York Stories Trilogy, three punk-rock-tinged tales that exist in the same theatrical universe. Each depicts a different splinter of ‘60s and ‘70s NYC, including the Andy Warhol scene, discos and grimy bars. Many of the characters recur.

Kopec says the idea is an offshoot of a series of unsuccessful attempts to write a single play about Warhol. “Each time I’d get to about the halfway point and realize there’s just no way to do it in one show,” he says. “The scene gets too big, too quick.” 

But sitting in a Vegas lounge just over a year ago with co-owner Erica Case, Kopec decided to let the scene get too big and devote an entire season to it.

Originally, Kopec says, he planned to write all three shows himself. He did end up creating the opening show, Another Tale of Eddie, and the Warhol-centric The King of Pop. But in the process of crafting the third and final play, The Scene You Need, he found himself consulting with frequent Alchemist performer and Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre producer Charles Sommers, who ended up writing the play.

While the plays are designed to be seen one after the other, each stands alone, complete with a fictional author (Adian Zix for Kopec, and Neil Monk for Sommers), unique lounge renovation and distinctive tone.

Another Tale of Eddie, the introduction to the Alchemist’s universe, is a hyperrealistic, gritty opener. Its title character Eddie (David Sapiro) is a down-on-his-luck artist who came to New York City as a musician chasing a woman and is now an aspiring writer who’s hit rock-bottom. He’s gotten tangled up with Izzy (April Paul), alongside whom he’s become a very bad purse-snatcher and grifter.

That’s how he meets Rose (Shannon Nettesheim), an easy mark whom Eddie ultimately falls for after he and Izzy steal an item more valuable than they could have imagined. As they try to get it back, Kopec says, the trio form an unexpected bond, complicated by Izzy’s unrequited affections for Eddie and each individual’s poor choices throughout the play.

“Each of the characters, including Rose, have these moments where they can make the right decision and not completely destroy the other people, but they constantly make the wrong decision,” Kopec says. “Yet at the end, even though they’ve all made the wrong decisions the entire time and should be killing each other, there’s still a love and a really neat relationship.”

Kopec’s worldbuilding for the trilogy starts with Eddie. Chris Knapp, a writer with Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre, has written a novella about Eddie (an earlier tale of Eddie, if you will) available at the bar, along with a demo of songs “by” Eddie. Of course, per usual, that bar won’t technically be the Alchemist’s bar. It’ll be a recreation of the iconic punk rock lounge CBGB, complete with graffiti-tagged walls, a live band and junkies trying to sell fake Rolexes.

It won’t stay that way long. For The King of Pop, a poetic story about Warhol and Bob Dylan (also written by Kopec but credited to the character Eddie), Kopec will deck out the lounge like Warhol’s NYC studio The Factory. And for The Scene You Need, a black-box style series of interconnected vignettes that carry on Eddie, Izzy and Rose’s stories while adding new characters, Kopec will try something he hasn’t ever done before: redesign the lounge in the middle of the performance, introducing it to audiences as Studio 54 at the top of the show and completely transforming it back into CBGB by intermission.

“It’s going to be a little crazy,” Kopec says, but it’s another way to shake up what’s expected of the Alchemist.

That's a topic that’s on his mind in more ways than one this year. The New York Stories Trilogy marks a deliberate break from the horror-themed shows that have been trademarks of the Alchemist’s line-up for several years. The group's upcoming production of The Rocky Horror Show Live in the fall is being billed as the “final” Halloween show. Kopec is deliberate in saying he’s not tired or sick of doing shows like that, but it’s equally clear his ambitions are expanding.

“I think people have enjoyed the Halloween shows, and I don’t want to take that away from them,” Kopec says. “But there’s other things that I want to do. … One thing I want to avoid is getting into any kind of rut or pattern, or being ‘that guy who does that thing.’”

There’s even the possibility that Kopec might take the Alchemist’s productions out of the Alchemist next year. One idea he’s considering is having a season of extremely intimate shows that aren’t announced as much as hinted at — a “scavenger hunt,” of sorts. For example, he says, they might write a short show that consists of two people having a conversation in a restaurant, where you have to go to the restaurant and ask to be seated near the actors to see the show. 

The idea hasn’t gotten past the conceptual stage yet — for one thing, Kopec says, “I’m not yet convinced that’s not the worst idea in the world” — but it’s certainly a very punk rock segue from a punk rock season.

ON STAGE

The Alchemist Theatre’s premiere of Another Tale of Eddie will run through March 28 at 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Milwaukee. Performances are at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $25 and include an item from the bar. Future plays in the New York Stories trilogy include The King of Pop (April 30 to May 16) and The Scene You Need (June 18 to July 11). See all three shows to save $15 and get a set of bonus items. Visit thealchemisttheatre.com to order tickets or get more information.

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