Shakespeare Theatre's The Alchemist

Before one word of the play is spoken, the Shakespeare Theatre lets you know what sort of production of Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist this is going to be. As theatre-goers find their seats they are greeted with a painted flat at the proscenium displaying the front entrance to an old, stylish, rich house. As the lights dim, harpsichord music plays, the kind that you would expect to hear at the opening of a play written in the 17th century. But director Michael Kahn flips our expectations as the harpsichord music is replaced with a blasting modern rock number. Though it was written in the 17th century, this production places The Alchemist in the here and now.

It is a choice that pays off. Instead of being full of characters we don’t understand, this production makes each person instantly recognizable to the audience. Credit for this must go to the costume designer, Murell Horton, whose work creates half of the comedy of the piece. The characters take one step on stage, we take one look at them, and a guffaw of recognition riffles through the audience.

In The Alchemist, three conmen, Subtle (David Manis), Face (Michael Milligan), and Dol Common (Kate Skinner) scheme to fool and rob their gullible neighbors. These neighbors include a druggist hippy, a Donald Trump look-a-like, and a duo of religious zealots. Robert Creighton as one of these zealots makes the biggest impression. He is a little bundle of exploding energy, stamping his foot and pumping his arm whenever he gets excited.

The script has its weaknesses. The female characters are ignored to the point of being offensive. Dol Common appears a couple times, but then the men shoo her upstairs, where she spends most of the play waiting for Jonson to allow her to appear again. It seems a waste of Skinner’s talent; Shakespeare Theatre audiences saw more of her in the recent staged reading! The demands for the only other female character, Dame Pliant, consists of standing onstage, looking pretty, and allowing old men to paw you. Every actress’s dream, I’m sure. But this is all Jonson’s fault, not the actors’ nor Khan’s. The other weakness is the fact that the script is rather one-joke (foolish character enters, conmen concoct elaborate scheme to rob him, repeat). But the modern aesthetic Kahn uses helps keep the production from feeling too stale.

3 starts
Through November 22


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