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Formulaic'Alchemist'

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Shakespeare's Over-the-Top Opener Falls Flat

Although the formula for comedy is there, the Shakespeare Theatre gets off to a fizzling start with its season opener, “The Alchemist.” This over-the-top, farcical romp in 14th-century London, penned by 17th-century Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson, just doesn’t live up to its hilarious potential.

It isn’t nearly as funny as it sounds on paper — and it does sound funny just based on the character names. According to the playbill: Jeremy the Butler, disguised as Captain Face, sets out to con his wealthy neighbors with his sidekick, Subtle, masquerading as an alchemist (who says he can turn metal to gold), and prostitute Dol Common. When the gentleman Lovewit flees England to avoid the plague, the trio set up headquarters in his home and set about exposing the social ills of their fellow Londoners. Among the motley bunch are an unsuspecting gambling-addicted clerk Dapper, tobacco-seller Abel Drugger, Sir Epicure Mammon, pastor Tribulation Wholesome, and Dame Pliant.

The consequent chaos promises sure-to-please mistaken identities and uproarious social satire, not too far from what we’re used to from the Bard.

The plot’s transformation into action on stage, however, is disappointing. Despite being mesmerized by James Noone’s elaborate set depicting a high-rent London townhouse, complete with grand staircase, and humored by Murell Horton’s plethora of outrageous garbs, audiences (especially one as sophisticated and spoiled as a Washington audience) will likely want more.

This could be a lesson on what separates Shakespeare from other thespians of his time. As it turns out, the gap between a promising plot of playful deception and pure genius is actually quite wide.

Although “Alchemist” is filled with amusing tricks, it lacks underlying passion. It’s not a romantic comedy, since no one falls in love, and it contains no twist of surprise — we can assume from the frivolous tone that no one will seriously suffer from the mockery. Hence, it holds no spark or magic, nor does it move the audience to a place different from where it started.

The overworked laughs — part of the problem with the script — might have been better received if director Michael Kahn played against them with more subtlety (not to be confused with the alchemist Subtle, whose name is funny due to irony). For instance, a joke that is mildly amusing the first time — bathroom stench humor, in this case — surely won’t be so by the fifth reference. Stubborn repetition doesn’t improve it; it only becomes more desperate.

Apparently, the play’s popularity during 1700s England relied on the economic desperateness of the time, known as the “South Sea Bubble.” According to Shakespeare Theatre literary associate Akiva Fox, “The Alchemist” became a runaway hit at a time when financial greed was taking its toll, with high stock prices forming a bubble as “the result of over-speculation, rumor-mongering and outright manipulation,” Fox said. Businesses and banks became bankrupt, and audiences then reveled in the play’s spoof commentary on greed.

As is the common trend, current theater groups hope modern-day similarities to past events will weigh in favor of their play choices. The Shakespeare Theatre likely hopes this production will bring to mind the likes of big-time swindlers like Bernard Madoff, serving to reinforce the universal theme that “people will believe anything if they stand to gain from it” while also benefiting from audiences’ recent bitter reality. This line of thinking certainly holds some promise, considering the current state of our country.

The Shakespeare Theatre also has the luxury of being able to fall back on its time-tested actors like David Sabin, who in this case, plays a ridiculously clad Sir Epicure Mammon. Sabin has the uncanny ability to make people chuckle just by unabashedly strolling onstage in an Elvis get-up. Robert Creighton, who plays a Southern-accented, Bible-thumping Ananias, is another standout whose acting is large enough to embody his ludicrous existence. Creighton spends most of his time on stage jumping up and down in religious fervor, clicking his heels together like a greedy elf that has digested one too many Red Bulls.

The Shakespeare Theatre also has deep pockets for extensive bells and whistles, in the form of the alchemist’s steaming witch’s brew and dramatic costume changes. Unfortunately, such slapstick comedy is almost impossible to completely pull off, except when tackled by such greats as Carol Burnett or Jackie Gleason.

It is noted that playwright Jonson’s audacious penmanship with this play and others landed him in jail time and again for slandering the authorities of his day. This production, although it won’t put anyone in the slammer, also may be too confident of audience embracement on its face value.

Will we, a modern audience, fall head over heels for this fanciful production as do its characters for the alchemist’s scheme? Although there are redeeming elements in this show — which marks the 150th production in artistic director Kahn’s directing career — it is likely we will need more to capture our imaginations. Just as one never gets gold from copper or metal, one doesn’t draw blood from a stone.

The Alchemist Nov. 22 Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre 450 7th St., NW Tickets are to . For more information, please call (202) 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

About the Author

Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014