The Alchemist by Ben Jonson
Directed by Michael Kahn
Shakeapeare Theatre Company
516 8th St. SE,Washington D.C. — Through November 22nd, 2009
Review by Grace Cavalieri
Of his comedies and tragedies, Ben Jonson (1573-1637) is probably best known for “The Alchemist.” Written in 1610, it is too rarely performed in America. This play I’m sure was received differently in the 17th century when jokes about alchemy were emphasized in the original script, at a time when people were familiar with its claims, uses and misuses. We know little of that science now, but Michael Kahn doesn’t worry about that whatsoever. Alchemy is the subject, but human greed is the motivating force for his characters as Kahn gleefully collapses a five- act play into two tight acts of satire. Apparently humankind is always as greedy as it is gullible, willing to gamble anything for sex, drugs and money. Then and now. That’s why this play is surprisingly relevant. If you say to someone, “Let’s go out to see Jacobean theater tonight,” you might get a blank stare, but there’s no worry about an arcane evening at the Lansburgh. The play hurls enough at the senses to keep you glued to its improbable plot, impossible antics, verbal wizardry, high jinks and pratfalls.
Set in an Elizabethan townhouse in London, the painted set opens from that era into a contemporary home; Courtly music turns from 17th century to heavy metal, and so unlikely time strands are braided throughout the play. Kahn Makes the most of Jonson’s bawdiness and wit, and also takes a few liberties , adding “little blue pill” jokes, to Jonson’s slang, plus a Donald Trump wig on one of the magnificent dupes, Sir Epicure Mammon ( David Sabin.)Sir Epicure has come seeking sensuality, sexuality and magical fortune to procure the perfect Lady of the Night . The play itself becomes an amalgamation of new and old substerfuge, ruses, slapstick, masquerades and of course, the best joke - that at the heart of it all - alchemy is another metaphor for theater.
In fear of “the plague,” the owner of a townhome home, has left his posh dwelling in the care of his trusted butler, “Face” (Michael Milligan.) Face, however is a hooligan, teaming up with two other con artists “Subtle” (David Manis) and, prostitute “Dol Common. “ (Kate Skinner.) Apparently, throughout time, people will do anything to get what they want, and the 1600’s were no different. Selling false commodities for an unfair trade, buying prophesies, faking identity to win a lady’s favor, lying cheating, stealing, all these since Shakespeare’s time and before, are the human foibles that make good theater. How they do it on stage makes all the difference. This play demands razor sharp actions and reactions, multiple costume changes and precision with language and timing. All the actors are superb, and unforgettably hilarious among them is Robert Creighton playing “ Ananias,” a deacon. It’s important to note that Jonson did not rely on myth and legend to underscore the stories he wrote for stage. He was more interested in life as he saw it. The characters in “The Alchemist” are prototypes of London society-- caricatures of standard types -- the clerk, merchant, knight, pastor, deacon, widow etc. (think Chaucer) but epitomized to the greatest stretch farce can make. It’s worth seeing. Through November 22. Tickets: 202-547-1122
Set Design by James Noone, Costume Design by Murell Horton, Lighting Design by Peter West, Composition by Adam Wernick, Sound design by Martin Desjardins, Fight Choreography by Robb Hunter and Voice and Text Coaching by Ellen O’Brien.
Grace Cavalieri is a playwright and a poet. She produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress “for public radio.