Nothing brightens the holidays like a costume pageant. Fresh from the kids’ dress-up bin, wrapped in silk and polyester, the tiniest thespians can guide us into imagined worlds of mad scientists and fairy queens. As loving parents, we want them to be anything they desire, and so we believe their words, no matter how ridiculous their wardrobe.
In The Alchemist, one of Ben Jonson’s most frenetic Elizabethan comedies, Michael Kahn and Shakespeare Theatre have stitched together an ode to the art of costuming and, on the flip side, to the deceptions inherent in reinventing identity. Although the budget is grand and the players’ skills expertly polished, at its heart The Alchemist is a giddy game of dress-up. It swirls with color and brims with mischief, overcoming its wobbly moments through pure impish ambition.
Left alone in a sparkling mansion while his master is out of town, Jeremy the butler (Michael Milligan) dons a bright red military coat, declares himself Captain Face, and hires the devious trickster Subtle (David Manis) to dress as an alchemist and plan a series of schemes against a variety of foolish urbanites. The prostitute next door, one Dol Common (Kate Skinner), completes their venture tripartite. The house soon becomes a lively gallery of misguided dupes, each throwing down money and collecting false promises from the trio of con artists.
Jonson may have written alongside Shakespeare (the two, in fact, shared audiences and venues as members of the King’s Men drama troupe), but while country boy Billy was waxing poetic on love and fate, Ben was peeling back the layers of inner-city London, exposing the damp and ugly lives of the knights, clerks, merchants, and gentlefolk he lived among and, ultimately, entertained. The first audiences of The Alchemist saw themselves onstage, lampooned for their greed and shallow desires: weak men yearning for muscle, bachelors lusting for fast women, and poor men grasping at instant wealth.
True to the laws of good farce, the gulf between wishes and rewards grows wider every minute. Jonson reserves his bitterest ink for the victims, who see only what they want to see, even when the tricks are ludicrous in their transparency. In this production, the criminals succeed with a series of knock-off Halloween wigs, a burbling chemistry set of bright red and green water, and a surprise cameo by the Queen of Fairies (Dol in disguise). Shakespeare would have furrowed his brow at this deranged vision of a sprite, clad as she is in a bright pink dress and plastic crown. Any wise man, short of an inebriated Walt Disney, would dismiss her as make-believe in an instant.
Of course, Subtle’s benefactors are not wise men. For all its madcap moments, Jonson’s play is a bitter satire of London in 1610, and Kahn has clearly spent long hours with the cast and with costume designer Murell Horton to update the character types. The result is a modern mixed-period style that occasionally hits the obvious notes but, most often, sends viewers into giggles of recognition. It’s no accident that the bleary shopkeeper Abel Drugger (Jeff Biehl) looks like your hippie college roommate thirty years later. Nor is it chance that the blusterous knight Sir Epicure Mammon (David Sabin) dons the sandy-gold toupee of one of America’s most famous billionaires.
The varied ensemble comes in all shapes and sizes. Kahn gets particularly good mileage out of the differences in actors’ heights, but the fun the cast has with unusual postures and vocal styles is contagious. Some end up in shiny suits, some in boxing gloves, some in their underwear. Yet all spring in and out of the mansion’s many doors with aplomb. Particularly magnetic are Milligan as the conniving Face, the sparrowy gambler Dapper (Nick Cordileone), and the excitable deacon Ananias (Robert Creighton), who fizzes with fits of holy faith like a shaken soda can.
Kahn, who previously directed Jonson’s Volpone and The Silent Woman for Shakespeare Theatre, adapts with a steady hand and with a deep reserve of ideas for a comedy that, poorly updated, would go over like a lead balloon. But the dusty old punch lines land, the show breathes fresh, vivacious air, and after a few minutes it’s easy to settle into the rhythm of the farce, as Subtle, Face, and Dol juggle episodic tricks and revolving clients.
So much emotion is artifice in the plot of The Alchemist, and so many personas designed to deceive, that it’s somewhat puzzling to discern moments in which the production itself falters. I’m not alone in hearing the insidious sound of Velcro during several onstage quick-changes. The expansive salon set, which rightly earned some oohs and aahs for its grand staircase and polished marble floors, has some suspiciously faux-finished edges. When Dol smashes a vase, its plastic pieces go rolling and wobbling across the floor.
These moments seem dubious given the show’s high production values, but I wonder if, just maybe, we’re intended to be among those wide-eyed suckers wrapped into the ploy. Like Subtle’s hapless customers, we force ourselves, through sheer expectation, to believe in illusions. Luckily, by the end of the night we don’t mind having been tricked. It’s how theater, like a good con, gets away with magic.
by Ben Jonson
Directed by Michael Kahn
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles