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The Alchemist

An Alchemist Formula That Glitters
but Is Not Gold

By Ben Jonson
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Directed by Michael Kahn

Oh, how the cast tried and tried. But this is Ben Jonson material, and even in his most popular plays, his lines can come off as obtuse. Jonson may have been a real Will Ferrell in his day, perhaps, but his humor seems overblown and underwhelming today (and I count myself a Jonson fan).

The Shakespeare Theater Company tried to breathe relevance and new life—and audience understanding—into The Alchemist by making it a modern-day tale relying on modern archetypes for Jonson's caricatures: Drugger as a stoner, Sir Epicure Mammon as a gold-lamé-wearing Donald Trump, Lovewit as Noel Coward, and Tribulation Wholesome as a Rev. Falwellish Southern evangelist with his earnestly amen-spouting Ananias. When each of the current-day caricatures of Jacobean caricatures appeared on stage, each generated big laughs. But when these characters started spouting Jonson wit, the audience went numb.

Cast members gave it their all, with Michael Milligan's Face and David Manis' Subtle rushing through one costume change after another, Robert Creighton's Ananias dervishly prancing through his comin'-to-Jesus moments, and Alex Morf imbuing the braggart Kastril with a whirlwind of flailing arms and stumbling legs. But lines that should have been worth at least a chuckle fell flat, allowing for agonizing pauses in the dialogue. More than a quarter of the audience around us fell asleep in the first half.

Blame Jonson in large part. Even with updated lines, his language is hard to access, and he doesn't just people his plays with archetypes; he has them speak sledgehammer pronouncements rather than poetic speeches or engaging conversations. The Alchemist, as presented here, was particularly victim to Jonson's favoring wit over depth. Its three central characters—Face, Subtle, and Dol Common—spent much of their private time declaiming at each other with angry accusations, thus creating not just unfunny discord on stage but a disconnect with an audience that can neither understand why these characters hate each other so much nor why it's worth caring about their enterprises. Notably, Face becomes a much more endearing character—and someone we can root for—at the end of the play when he reverts to his real role as Jeremy the butler and works in tandem with his master, Lovewit, to right all wrongs. When your play's heroes are so off-putting, it becomes difficult to embrace their gulling of the hypocrites who make up the rest of the cast.

But some responsibility rests with the company and director Michael Kahn, too. He took great pains to seamlessly update some of the references in the play (such as changing Kydd to Shakespeare), but these fell as flat as the original punch lines did for the wearied audience. The production put an awful lot of store in the costuming, the modern townhouse set, the frenetic pace and constant motion, and the caricatured characters; but it perhaps put too little effort into dissecting and fleshing out Jonson's language to create charactered caricatures. The result was some moments of visual delight, but no emotional treasure worth storing.

Eric Minton
October 16, 2009

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