It’s Peter Falk
Ask people about Peter Falk and they’ll mention...The Princess Bride. (Okay, maybe that’s just my generation.) But ask people about Peter Falk and they’ll mention Wings of Desire. (Okay, that’s probably just me. Good movie, though.) Ask MOST people about Peter Falk and they’ll mention Columbo. Peter Falk: there was an actor who truly became synonymous with a role. You think Columbo and you think Peter Falk. And you think Peter Falk and you think Columbo. You see him in Wings of Desire and you think Columbo. Hell...you see him in The Princess Bride and you think Columbo. So...say you’re staging a production of an old stage play on the south side of Milwaukee and that stage play happens to have Columbo in it. You know what everyone’s going to be thinking? That’s right: Peter Falk.
Only it’s not Peter Falk
It takes a hell of a lot of guts to stage a play where everyone walking into the show is going to be thinking very, very specifically of an actor who, barring any hauntings, seances or ouija boards is definitely NOT going to be showing-up. Alchemist Theatre Guy and Director Aaron Kopec has precisely that many guts. This month, he’s staging a production of Prescription Murder. It’s the stage play that got turned into a 1968 TV movie that introduced Columbo to television by way of...Peter Falk.
Here we have the exceedingly talented Randall T. Anderson in the role of the rumpled police detective on the trail of the murderer of the wife of a psychiatrist. Again: not an easy thing to step into the Falk for this one, but thankfully, Anderson’s only got one foot in the Falk. The other foot is firmly in Columbo. (Okay so this is starting to sound a little weird.)
The tradition of the rumpled gumshoe detective wasn’t originated by Falk or even Columbo. The archetype goes back to Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Theoretically, Anderson could have spent a bit more energy finding the rumpled gumshoe detective that uniquely resides within him and come away with something much more fascinating than what he ended up with here. It would have been really cool to see what he would have come up with, but he would have disappointed a lot of people who had come to see...Peter Falk. So like I say: Anderson plays it half-Falked. This is a Columbo somewhere between Peter Falk and Randall T. Anderson. This is actually as much fun to watch because it’s a balancing act as it is to watch because it’s just a really good performance.
Men of a certain aspect ratio
The costuming by Amanda J. Hull is very specifically 1960s. Something feels a bit off about that on account of the fact that this is Columbo.
At some point mention is made of Idlewild Airport. And suddenly I’m thinking: “Okay, so this is the ‘60s with the music and the costumes, but exactly when in the ‘60s is this?” They hadn’t called it Idlewild Airport since...1963. But most people aren’t going to think Columbo and think of the early 1960s. I think Columbo and I think of men of a certain aspect ratio and resolution. That sort of washed-out fuzziness of the 1970s when the character appeared in over 40 feature-length TV dramas that echoed into infinity on syndication for UHF back when THAT was a thing. Kopec and company firmly plant this thing outside that bleary 4:3 cathode ray era and bring it into something considerably more classy.
Columbo by Way of Hitchcock
So it wasn’t originally Falk as Columbo. An early TV appearance featured some guy named Thomas Mitchell in the role and before that there was a guy named Bert Freed. Go far enough back and you end up with a stage play called Prescription Murder which was originally staged back in 1962. More than simply using fashions, furniture and props that feel like the ‘60s, Kopec nails a very early ‘60s Alfred Hitchcock feel about it complete with overly dramatic lighting and music cues and just the right kind of chemistry between the actors.
Columbo himself doesn’t actually show-up for much of the early going of the play. For the early part of the play, we have Chris Goode as cunning psychiatrist Dr. Roy Flemming and Amanda J. Hull as his wife. Goode is ever-so-slightly over-the-top as a Hitchcockian murder villain who Columbo must find a way to outsmart. Goode’s got the feel of an early '60s murder-mystery drama nailed quite precisely here. For her part, Hull does a really good job as the murder victim. It’s got to be really, really difficult to make an authentic appearance in a role so obviously marked for death from the beginning of the play, but Hull gives the character enough depth to make her feel like someone who just might have gone on living had it not been for this whole, "becoming a homicide victim," thing that she ran into on her way out of town.
Rounding out the edges of the ensemble are Sharon Nieman-Koebert with an endearing New York accent as Flemming’s receptionist and Patrick Schmitz (yes, really) as Flemming’s friend Dave Gordon. There’s also a dog. His name is Rufus #1. He’s a Basset Hound. This is not his first time on a stage. Go figure.
Brenda Poppy is suitably restless as Dr. Flemming’s lover and accomplice. She’s got a very powerful physical presence which is cleverly muted by the character’s reluctance to go along with her lover’s plans to murder his wife. In the early going, Goode, Hull and Poppy rest within a very Hitchcockian Kopec set, lighting and sound design in what feels like a very stylishly cozy early ‘60s film murder for stage. Then Anderson shows-up as Columbo and there’s an engrossing battle of wits that draws the drama to a very satisfying close.
Alchemist Productions’ staging of Columbo: Prescription Murder runs through May 19th at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket requests and more, visit Alchemist Theatre online.