Hitchcockian tension makes ‘The Clockmaker’ tick

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Moder
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Moder

When it comes to suspense, Alfred Hitchcock is the yardstick against which directors and writers are measured. To have their works come even somewhat close to the levels of masterful tension Hitchcock produced in his classic films is a feat not many have accomplished.

Yet when a play is compared to Hitchcock’s work, it instantly alerts audiences to something unexpected from a stage show.

Next Act Theater’s newest production, “The Clockmaker” (opening today), is one such play, defying the theater norm and exploring a genre usually saved for the silver screen. The show takes audiences to Germany in 1912, where Heinrich Mann, a lonely clockmaker, lives with the disappointment that he will never be the best at his trade. His luck changes, however, when a young woman comes into his shop for a repair. In helping the woman, Mann discovers his true greatness.

The Hitchcock references are apparent in the show’s writing style and a puzzle central to the plot, details about which are themselves mysterious.

“There’s a mystery that the clockmaker and the young woman are trying to figure out,” director Mary MacDonald Kerr said. “I can’t give it away, but they end up in a position where they don’t understand what’s happening, and there’s a mystery that they have to solve.”

This plot twist is not the only way “The Clockmaker” keeps audiences intrigued. Playwright Stephen Massicotte tampers with the timeline of the show.

“He writes these oddly old-fashioned but modern plays about human interactions and the afterlife,” Kerr said. “He tackles big subjects, but somehow they’re very small stories about only two or three people. In this one, he’s got devices where he’s messing with time. It goes into the future and into the past, and the characters don’t necessarily know what’s happened to them. It’s very interesting and very compelling.”

Because this time-traveling component is central to the plot, it is an important element for the actors to really understand. While it can be difficult for performers to quickly transition between different periods of time, Kerr worked with cast members to ensure they understood the context of what they were performing.

“It took us a little while for our brains to get wrapped around what happens when,” she said. “We lined up all the scenes in regular time, so we rearranged the play and spent time rehearsing in the (order) they would chronologically take place. That helped us remember where we are in each scene because you have to carry the emotional story into each scene from (the previous one), and it’s hard to keep track of that.”

Kerr believes viewers will enjoy trying to figure out the purpose of the time-jumping and the answer to the mystery at hand.

“There might be a time (when the audience may be confused), but it’s part of the fun,” Kerr said. “I don’t think people will feel like they’re missing anything or they’re not clever enough to figure it out. It’s intentional by the playwright. Everything gets answered.”

Considering the unique plot and theatrical devices, “The Clockmaker” seems like an unusual work to perform. However, the show fits in well with the other Next Act productions of the 2012-2013 season.

The company’s last two shows, “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Microcrisis,” both focused on the impact one person can have on those around him, the former being in a positive way, the latter in a negative way. The subject matter in “The Clockmaker” concentrates on similar values.

“The themes in the show are moral responsibility to each other and the difference that one person can make, (how) one person’s one action can (have) a wider ripple effect,” Kerr said. “I don’t know if it was intentionally a theme, but it is definitely a theme that’s going through the season this year.”

The similar motifs of these shows by no means suggest that audiences should not see “The Clockmaker” if they saw either of the other productions. If anything, audiences will get to see how a different playwright explores these themes while adding new elements of suspense and mystery. Kerr said the show’s successful reputation alone should give theater-goers incentive to see the production.

“Even though it’s complicated, it’s very accessible,” Kerr said, “and the acting is remarkable. … It’s got a really lovely sense of humor about God, the afterlife, … our purpose here on earth and what our obligations to each other are as humans.”

Although she was asked to direct the show a year ago, Kerr had only two months to actively prepare before spending four weeks rehearsing with the actors. That time may seem insufficient to prepare a piece so complex, but she is confident the cast is ready for tonight when the curtain goes up. To her, the show’s challenging elements never outweighed its rewarding payoffs.

“I find the process of bringing a playwright’s work to life rewarding, always,” Kerr says. “I’m getting the reward of watching actors I admire do their work. And I really like the (script), so it’s a pleasure to be hanging out in that story.”

If the show lives up to the hype, Milwaukee theater patrons and Hitchcock fanatics will love hanging out there as well.