Although little known or revived today, Ben Jonson was William Shakespeare’s rival in the comedy genre in Elizabethan and Jacobean times: his best plays are Volpone (best known today in Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox 1976 and 2004 Broadway adaptation) and The Alchemist, last seen in a major New York production in 1966 presented by the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. One of the problems with Jonson’s plays is their large casts originally played by the London’s permanent repertory companies: the 1966 Lincoln Center production had 24 actors, while his Bartholomew Fair (never yet seen on Broadway) requires 29 speaking roles besides crowd scenes. His first hit Everyman in His Humor requires 16 actors plus “Servants, etc.”
Red Bull Theater which specializes in rediscovering Elizabethan and Jacobean plays has come to the rescue with a world premiere adaptation of The Alchemist by Jeffrey Hatcher, also responsible for their fresh revival of Gogol’s comedy, The Government Inspector in 2017, and almost the entire team involved with that acclaimed production. According to his own program notes, Hatcher’s adaptation is “a slimmed-down version of the play, with fewer characters and one setting instead of four” and he has added some anachronistic contemporary humor which gets the laughs. He has also simplified the language so that modern audiences are in on the jokes. In a play that has only two women’s roles, he has built up their parts “to make it a fairer fight.”
Described by poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge as one of the three most perfect plots (the other two in his estimation being Sophocles’ Oedipus and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones) The Alchemist is classic farce which includes a good deal of slapstick, later referred to in our time as screwball comedy. Alexis Distler’s wonderful two-level wood paneled set has at least six doors (four down and two up) and an additional trap door in the staircase, plus a secret wall panel. Jesse Berger’s production gives the actors a workout running around and up and down stairs, as well as having to make quick changes of costume on a regular basis. The play also has a fight scene overseen by action movement director Rick Sordelet and a chase scene probably worked out by choreographer Tracy Bersley.
A study in greed and human foibles, The Alchemist like Moliere’s best comedies demonstrates gullibility at its worst. All of the dupes willingly allow the con-artists to deceive them through their own naiveté and credulity, much like today’s belief in misinformation. Set during the year of the London plague of 1610, unseen rich London gentleman Lovewit has escaped to his country house to avoid infection, leaving his town house to his butler Jeremy. This butler has renamed himself “Captain Face” (Manoel Felciano) and teams up with con-artists Subtle (Reg Rogers) who claims to be an alchemist and Dol Common (Jennifer Sánchez), a prostitute of their acquaintance. Their reputation having preceded them, they are visited by a series of fools who all desire something they have not been able to acquire on their own.
First up is Drugger (Nathan Christopher), a tobacconist who wants a scheme to make his shop a success. Next in line is Dapper (Carson Elrod), a lawyer’s clerk, who desires a charm so that he can win at cards. He is followed by Sir Epicure Mammon (Jacob Ming-Trent), a rich nobleman who wishes a philosopher’s stone which will turn his metals into gold. He is accompanied by Surly (Louis Mustillo), a skeptic who is certain that Subtle is a fraud and plans to unmask him.
Next up is Ananais (Stephen DeRosa), a religious fanatic, “emissary from the Anabaptists, that holy Protestant sect banished to Holland for the crime of being too perfect,” come for the philosopher’s stone they have ordered in order to mint gold for their future goals. Ultimately, Kastril (Allen Tedder), a country bumpkin with a rich widowed sister, Dame Pliant (Teresa Avia Lim), arrives hoping to get lessons in how to quarrel to be considered (as we would say today) one of the cool kids, as well as consult Doctor Subtle on his sister’s marriage future for which he is willing to pay royally.
The second act which is faster and funnier brings the “Queen of the Fairies,” an explosion from the laboratory in the basement, Surly’s return in disguise as a Spanish nobleman, and ultimately an officer of the law. Hatcher’s script makes the original five-act play more accessible to American audiences along with modern anachronisms like the use of the words “disco” and “capitalism” and the theme from the James Bond film, Goldfinger.
While Berger’s work with the actors is excellent, the pace might be quicker, although considering the complicated plot (Coleridge notwithstanding) it might become harder to follow. Felciano and Rogers are a bit more muted than one would expect for the con-artists but never go beyond credulity. As Dapper, Elrod who has entertained us in such David Ives’ satires as The Liar, The Heir Apparent, Lives of the Saints and All in the Timing isn’t given much to do which is not his fault. Best are Ming-Trent’s wide-eyed Sir Epicure Mammon and Mustillo’s Surly whose facial expressions are a study in understatement. As Dol Common, Sánchez is fetching in a series of costumes one more outrageous than the other. Generally, though Tilly Grimes’ costumes are attractive but low-key. At times it is difficult to make out all the words but whether that is the fault of Greg Pliska’s sound design or the use of many accents (Deborah Hecht, the vocal, dialect and text coach), that cannot be determined.
The Red Bull Theater production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist will most likely introduce a new generation to this classic Jacobean comedy in a form that most will be able to follow due to being put into contemporary American English. Hatcher may well have saved this relatively unknown masterpiece from the literary scrap heap. Red Bull is to be complimented for living up to its mission of bringing “rarely seen classic plays to dynamic new life for contemporary audiences.”
The Alchemist (live through December 15, 2021; streaming February 1 – 14, 2022)
Red Bull Theater
New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.Telecharge.com
Running time: two hours with one intermission