Most of us acknowledge that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote like an angel. Many of us know that as a man, he struggled with alcoholism, the Jazz Age, a worldwide Depression that rocked his financial stability and that of nearly everyone else, a debilitated wife, and separation from his beloved, only daughter. But that was a long time ago.
In 1931, The Saturday Evening Post published his short story, Babylon Revisited. It has become known as one of Fitzgerald’s finest tales, one that powerfully explores most of the actual challenges in his life with such clarity and emotional depth that generations later Donald Marcus, co-founder of The Ark Theatre Company in Soho, and co-producer with his wife Lisa Milligan of the remarkable play at Studio One at Shakespeare & Company became determined to dramatize it. He says that over the course of twenty years he tried first to turn it into a theatre piece, and then a movie, “but nothing worked.”
When I arrive at Studio One to watch a scene from the current adaptation and talk to its creators, Marcus continues: “Lisa and I were in LA where I told my filmmaker son, Ted, and his multi-award-winning actor friend, Anthony Nikolchev, about my struggles with Babylon. They read it, and after some brainstorming, announced they knew how to do it. And they did.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Nikolchev’s vision to integrate theatre and film is the key, and he is the play’s co-adapter and co-director with Don Marcus, as well as its sole live actor. Ted Marcus filmed the other ten actors in costume several weeks ago in front of a dark background. This enabled Ark’s digital wizard, Alexa Green, to isolate and combine the filmed actors’ voices and images at will, eliminating the distraction of detailed backgrounds. With perfect timing, she and Anthony make thoughts visible. I become aware that I’m watching the actor’s mind at work — the way the mind really works — not in a compartmentalized or linear way — but fluidly, moving according to its own logic, and very much influenced by the thinker’s emotions.
In the scene I’m watching, Anthony plays tormented Charlie Wales, who is trying to win back custody of his motherless daughter from his sister-in-law. He works on the interesting set, a room full of furniture backed by a wall of steamer trunks, and tells me, tonight’s audience, his story (or is he thinking out loud?) as he moves furniture and objects from place to place. While he talks, the filmed actors participate by speaking and moving the way Charlie remembers them, appearing and disappearing around the room. The effects are amazing, but all of them ring true. The story and the language soar and go deep. They remain Fitzgerald’s. I’m aware of no “tricks” here, no technological “gimmicks,” just an emotionally satisfying amalgam of film and theatre I haven’t experienced before.
Who are these magicians? Ted Marcus graduated with Highest Honors from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, but he spent his freshman year at Wesleyan where he met Anthony Nikolchev, who has acted in New York, LA, the UK and Europe, and whose writing and acting have been lauded by the Los Angeles Times. Nikolchev took Jerzy Grotowski’s actor training that emphasizes the use of physical skill and props to transform objects — sometimes to give them great significance. Overhearing Ted and Anthony in conversation is like listening to visual imagination. Alexa Green was born and raised in Pittsfield. She graduated from Miss Hall’s School and NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. The others are in awe of her techniques, and although she is modest, she admits she’s making magic
Don Marcus and Lisa Milligan have been celebrated for years in New York for doing innovative work. They are best known for producing the first New York productions of Tony-winning director Julie Taymor (The Lion King). Their work, Starmites, received a Tony nomination for Best Musical. They have moved to Egremont, drawn to the Berkshires by its beauty, its concentration of theatrical resources, and its discerning audiences. Babylon is a pilot project for the kind of work The Ark Theatre Company plans to do going forward. “We want to create, develop, and present new work in the Berkshires — employing both local and imported theatre artists, and then bring that work to a larger audience,” says Don. Several of the filmed actors here are familiar, including the excellent Ryan Winkles and Kelly Galvin.
For a clip of interviews with the creators of ‘Babylon Revisited,” click on video below:
When the lights come up, The Ark Theatre Company members are pleased with my enthusiasm for what they’ve done. The men start to tell me things about what I haven’t yet seen, but Lisa stops them. She understands the power of anticipation. In the end, they only add that in the rest of the play “no part of the set is unused.” Mysterious. Intriguing. I can’t help thinking F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was so badly treated and misunderstood when he turned, out of financial desperation, to writing Hollywood pictures, will be redeemed here. I think he would smile to see Babylon Revisited being seen and heard the way he may have imagined it.
Babylon Revisited will run from October 8th through October 25th with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. There are only 12 performances, and only fifty seats in Studio One. To be among the first to enjoy it, call Shakespeare & Company’s box office (413-637-3353).
For further information go to the production’s Facebook page; “Babylon Revisited – The Play,” or access its promotional videos via the link: www.indiegogo.com/projects/babylon-revisited#/story