The Alchemist Theater seems to have perfected the perfect, little boutique theatre show for a chilly night in Bay View. Randall T. Anderson’s The Bartender returns for another cozy, little evening of 8 mixed drinks mixed with stories from biography, history and something else. The show sold-out not long after tickets became available.
I count myself lucky. This weekend I was able to go to the show for a second time...this time to review for the print edition of the Shepherd-Express. The set-up of a show is a lot to describe in 300 words for print. Stories are told and drinks are served amidst an immersive multimedia atmosphere. . . there’s a lot to set-up and establish. So I didn’t really get a chance to go into detail on the character of the Bartender that Anderson does such a good job of rendering in the intimacy of the Alchemist Theatre bar.
The character introduces himself at the outset of the evening. He’s the archetype of the Bartender throughout history. There are a million different kinds of bartenders in a million different kinds of bars. Anderson plays one who feels like he could casually pick-up a shift at any bar in the world. Anderson is a mid-century classic of a guy...a throwback to an era that was featured in history likely just before he was born. Naturally his Bartender is going to be a bit of a throwback as well...the clever wit and wisdom of a man who always knows another story and always knows just how to deliver it.
There’s no way to write about Anderson’s performance without making it sound kind of exaggerated and theatrical. Anderson is perfectly natural in the role, though. Nothing feels forced. There’s no cheesy dialect or over-rendered character voice for The Bartender. It’s just Randall T. Anderson telling stories from the perspective of an endlessly charming archetype. Anderson’s rendering of the character works so well because he’s simply introducing the character to the audience. No further flash is needed from Anderson. It all comes together amidst mixed drinks Antishadows and Aaron Kopec’s atmospheric sound and video. Lost in the narrative and suddenly there's Erica Case popping out of the shadows with a tray of drinks that Anderson was just telling a story about. It's all kind of magical.
Anderson’s Bartender tells stories from history and bits of biographical narrative for the character he’s playing. The stories he’s telling may be really specific to the character. but Anderson manages to make them universally relatable. (One of the stories involving a palm reader on a train even manages to be a story ABOUT universally relatable themes. It’s all very cleverly-conceived stuff.)
It's remarkable how well-balanced this show is from every angle. The balance of the narrative is just one aspect of that balance, but it's easy to overlook in a lounge theatre experience where one element of production fuses into the natural gravity of the next. With just a single performer, great lighting, a little video in a tiny, little snuggery a show like this can seem deceptively simple. There's no reason why there shouldn't be a show like this running every single week in every single neighborhood in Milwaukee. It's easy to think like that with a show that is this well-execute, but then a show like this is rarely executed this well. Anderson and company have found the perfect balance here.
The Bartender continues its sold-out run through Dec. 17 at the Alchemist Theatre. Alchemist has plans to welcome Randall T. Anderson back for another run in the future. For more information on this and more (including the Alchemist’s upcoming Soviet-themed New Year’s Eve party) visit thealchemisttheatre.com.