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Play to show at UA before heading to Big Apple

Becky Robinson

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University of Alabama theater professor Seth Panitch is taking his most recent production, “Hell: Paradise Found,” to an Off-Broadway stage in New York City. However, before he and his cast depart for the Big Apple, there will be three performances on campus starting July 2.

Panitch’s play tells the story of a young lawyer who died and missed his “defining moment” in life, a moment in which he chooses heaven or hell. Panitch’s idea of heaven and hell is quite different than the traditional religious views held by Christians. He came up with the idea for “Hell: Paradise Found” while researching a play on Shakespeare, and discovered Puritans believed performing was a sin.

“It reminded me of all the figures, many that we celebrate today, that for one reason or another had been labeled ‘sinners’ or ‘heretics’ simply for offering a different interpretation or of altering a status quo,” Panitch said. “I wondered assuming the Puritans and others like them were right—and that Shakespeare, Galileo, Joan of Arc, etcetera, were all sent to hell, who would wind up in heaven under those conditions?”

In the play, heaven is reserved for those who have not only made the right choices their entire life, but also for those who never questioned authority or rules. Hell is a place for people who are not necessarily bad, but may have taken a stand for what they believed in, even if it was considered the wrong choice.

“When I wrote the piece, I was most interested in poking fun at the seductive power of conformity,” Panitch said. “I am fascinated by the compulsion we have to label someone a heretic or alien for having a different point of view.”

Panitch’s hell is filled with a lively cast of characters. Lucifer and Vlad the Impaler are two characters played by guest actor Chip Persons. Panitch met Persons in Colorado where they performed at Shakespearean festivals and acted together in many plays.

The play also includes hell resident Lizzie Borden, based on the infamous Massachusetts ax murder suspect, and performed by Alexandra Ficken, a recent UA graduate who learned acting under Panitch’s instruction, and has worked with him on many after-school projects.

Ficken, one of four UA graduates in the play, said playing a loud-mouthed character such as Borden is something she hasn’t done in a while and swinging around her character’s ax is exciting.

Pantich said he wants to make sure the actors who have recently graduated have an easier time making their way into professional projects. One way he does this is the Bridge Project, which allows graduates to act alongside professional actors. “Hell: Paradise Found” is a continuation of this project.

“Projects like this make it easier for actors to transition into the profession,” Panitch said. “A showcase is the usual form this takes, but performing for two weeks Off-Broadway is certainly a stronger approach to this challenge.”

Matt Lewis, a 2012 UA MFA acting graduate, plays Simon the lawyer. Like Ficken, Lewis was approached by Panitch to take part in his play.

“It’s a really great experience to work with the company,” Lewis said. “I’ve worked with the actors before, and it’s cool to have one last experience with them.” Panitch and his cast have made many changes to the script and stage throughout rehearsals. The Allen Bales stage has been taped off to be smaller, similar to the proscenium-style stage the theater in New York offers.

When it comes to taking the play to New York, the cast is excited.

“It’s a dream come true to work in the City,” Ficken said. “That’s always a big thrill. The New York audience is a battle-hardened one. They have seen everything- numerous times. When you get a laugh out of them, you earn that laugh!”

“Hell: Paradise Found” will run July 2-4 in the Allen Bales Theatre. Tickets are free, but reservations are needed. Call 205-348-3845 for more information.

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Play to show at UA before heading to Big Apple