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The Alchemist

Concocting Rich Matter
Out of Baser Stuff

By Ben Jonson
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Sunday, January 31, 2010, B–6&7 (center stalls)
Actors' Renaissance Season

John Harrell in wizard robes and  hat and table of vials
John Harrell plays Subtle masquerading as the necromancer in The Alchemist at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Harrell and the rest of the troupe discovered distinct personalities in their lines, despite the mostly archetypal characters Ben Jonson wrote. Photo by Tommy Thompson, American Shakespeare Center.

Inevitably, this ASC Actors Renaissance Season production would be compared to the Shakespeare Theatre Company's presentation in D.C. last October. The D.C. production, with emphasis on a modern set, costuming, and frenetic pace, came up short in presenting real characters. As I wrote then, “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.”

We trusted ASC would do that fleshing, even if the cast had just a couple of weeks to do so and no formal direction. They succeeded. This not only was an accessible Alchemist without any noticeable updating of the text, it also was a fun time. Here the wrangling among the conspirators made sense and added tension to the plot. Here the multiple characters and their individual plots were easy to discern. Here the lines proved funnier than the caricatures. Here the laughter grew as the plot developed.

Granted, this version had the advantage of the STC production prepping us as, even with the number of Jonson plays I've read and seen, I still find him awfully obtuse; nevertheless, here I heard lines and understood plot points in this version I didn't even know were in the play after seeing the D.C. production. And this was just the ASC troupe's third presentation in the run, requiring four “prithees” to the prompter.

What worked at ASC? A cast discovering distinct personalities in their lines, delivering those lines with clarity, and interacting with each other rather than merely acting alongside each other.

Then there's the talent. John Harrell went beyond his typically droll self in the role of Subtle, giving the conning necromancer a depth of passion that made us feel for him at his fall in the end. Benjamin Curns was a subtle Face, delivering an acting tour de force as he transitioned back and forth from the captain to the German labmaster and finally into Jeremy the Butler at the end; but all the while it was his understated expressions that drove the plot. Allison Glenzer was Allison Glenzer as Dol Common, but believably turned Dol into the crazy sister scholar and queen of the fairies. Daniel Kennedy played it straight as Surly, but when Surly returned as the disguised Spanish Don, his physical comic gifts were in full flourish. Chris Johnston was no amen-spouting Ananias, but he was a sourly righteous Anabaptist who grumblingly acquiesced to Tribulation's admonishments. Then there was Gregory Jon Phelps as the fat knight, Epicure Mammon; of all the characters in the play, this is the most obtuse; and of all the players on the stage, Phelps was the most endearing and the funniest, grunting each time he lowered and raised himself.

All that said, our desire to see ASC's production of The Alchemist again was not due to the great performances in the play proper, but rather to see again the musical performances before the play and during the interludes. The day's highlight was Phelps' performance of “Business Time” backed by Curns and Tyler Moss on guitars. It was a laughter-to-tears moment that ranks with Pinch's dance and Bottom's death by foot odor at Blackfriars, the Atlanta Tavern's Midsummer Night's Dream, and Bill Cosby's trip to the dentist as the funniest things I've ever seen.

Eric Minton
February 2, 2010

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