Merc production evokes classic melodrama themes
By Marcy Stamper
The ambience and vocabulary may be more than 100 years old, but the basic themes of 19th-century melodramas — sensationalism and sentimentality — will be quite familiar to 21st-century audiences when The Merc Playhouse presents The Diabolical Elixir, or Choose Your Poison beginning Friday (Oct. 23)
“Look at TV. This really grabs people’s imagination — it’s not ambiguous,” said director Ki Gottberg. “You know who’s the villain, who’s the good guy.”
Gottberg, artistic director of the Merc Playhouse, adapted The Diabolical Elixir, or Choose Your Poison, from two original 19th-century melodramas, retaining some of the original flowery language and ideas, but tweaking the plays to give her version a contemporary edge and to accentuate the humor.
“It’s a penchant of mine. I love 19th-century melodramas because they’re so completely wacky,” said Gottberg.
Elixir takes the form of a radio play, with sound effects created by the actors, who employ rattles, cymbals and even tennis shoes — as well as their own voices — to tell the story. In the 19th century, these plays were typically very atmospheric, with elaborate, painted backdrops that transported the audience to different places. But in Gottberg’s version, the journey takes place through sound.
Since the play is performed as if on radio, audience members can shut their eyes and just listen, but Gottberg said part of the fun is seeing the actors at work as they manipulate their props.
One of the conceits of the 19th-century melodramas was the stereotypical notion that the fate of the weakest character — usually a woman — was foreordained by her vulnerability. Gottberg likes turning that tradition on its head, creating strong female characters and unexpected outcomes. In Elixir, she also tweaks the larger theme, mixing up the gender of the actors and the characters.
There is an actual diabolical elixir in the plot, rumored to create certain effects, which the characters can choose to consume — or not — with intriguing results.
Gottberg even adapted her adaptation. She revised her original script, which she wrote for a solo actor, to accommodate the seven local actors she’s directing in the play. All the actors play more than one character. Some are veterans of local theatrical productions, and others are appearing on the stage for the first time.
“I love that these plays make life simple,” said Gottberg. It becomes funny because life isn’t really black and white, she said.
The Diabolical Elixir is at the Merc from Friday through Saturday, Oct. 31, with performances on Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 9 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for 18 and under, with a pay-what-you-wish performance next Thursday (Oct. 29).
Saturday performances start late to avoid conflicting with other scheduled events. The show runs a little more than an hour.