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Theater review: Ben Jonson’s comedy ‘The Alchemist’ opens in Madison

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Aug. 9 performance of The Shakespeare Theatre’s production of ‘The Alchemist,’ by Ben Jonson

Rating:
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Saturday evening, Aug. 9, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison (Morris Township) premiered “The Alchemist,” by Ben Jonson, a Shakespeare contemporary. Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte adapted the comedy and directed a committed cast. In her 24 years with the company she has directed more than 50 stage works.

In 1610 London, Lovewit flees the plague, leaving his estate in the hands of his butler, Jeremy. Seeing his opportunity for profit, Jeremy assumes the identity of a certain Captain Face. Joining forces with Subtle (the quack “alchemist”) and Dol Common, a woman of ill repute—who also assume other identities—they lose no time in swindling others. Among their gullible victims figure characters with suggestive names: Matthew Dapper; the tobacconist Abel Drugger; an effete wealthy nobleman, Sir Epicure Mammon, and his friend, the not-to-be-gulled Pertinax Surly; the young Kastril and Anabaptists Ananias and Pastor Tribulation Wholesome.

The trio of principals carried the massive weight of this fast-paced, unrelenting, text-heavy work. Jon Barker as Jeremy/Captain Face was nearly everywhere at once. One madcap episode followed another, punctuated with countless puns of double meaning, even sword fighting. Bruce Cromer as Subtle conjured his hokum convincingly (to his dupes) and submitted to every form of physical comedy including slapstick pratfalls. Playing Dol Common, Aedin Moloney was most hilarious when posing as a fine lady for Sir Epicure Mammon. The three owned their roles and commanded the stage in every scene.

Sir Epicure Mammon, played by Brent Harris, was just as smitten with Dol Common as he was with himself, and delivered hilarious, lengthy, purple speeches in every conceivable posture: sitting, standing, preening, prone and supine. His companion, the skeptical Pertinax Surly (Kevin Isola) was a genuine wet blanket to Sir Mammon’s inexorable obsession to see his pewter and copper mystically converted to gold, but he later returned as a silly Spanish lord, who was as funny as his Surly character was, well, surly.

Kastril, ever seeking to “quarrel” (to duel with swords) with someone but too afraid to learn how to do it, was played by Seamus Mulcahy. With exaggeratedly affected posture, everyone wondered how he could stand or walk without falling over backwards. As his “suster,” Dame Pliant, Kristen Kittel made much of a small role as a ditsy widow.

James Michael Reilly was duly stoic and wooden as the Anabaptist Ananias, whose lines allowed him animation when cursing and condemning the heretical pagans of the cast, something he had ample opportunity to do. Raphael Nash Thompson played the affable, conciliatory Tribulation Wholesome with warmth and wit. Present only in the final scene, John Ahlin portrayed the English gentlemen Lovewit in whose home these goings-on occur during his absence.

Clearly an audience favorite, Jeffrey M. Bender inhabited the role of Abel Drugger, the neighborhood tobacconist, bringing sympathy to the otherwise foolish character of just another of the gullible. His timing, facial expressions and purposely small gestures were spot-on, and he deservedly received the greatest applause at the work’s conclusion.

Scenic Designer Jonathan Wentz created a clever unit set featuring a salon in the entryway of Lovewit’s estate, complete with an ingenious movable front door, allowing the audience to see inside the grand house and limited action just outside as well. Costume Designer Nikki Delhomme dressed the cast in rich satins, velvets, and leather.

Overheard in the audience: (First woman) “Everyone was laughing so much during the whole play, but I couldn’t understand what the actors said, could you?” The reply: “No, I couldn’t either. They all spoke too fast for me.” (The first woman again) “I guess neither of us got any of the jokes.”

Bonnie Monte addressed the audience before the Act I curtain and confessed that she had avoided Jonson’s comedy most of her professional life. But then she had an epiphany, which led her to prepare a streamlined adaptation of the work for this production. Theater-goers who like double-entendres and coarse humor with lots of pointing toward the loins can be glad for the end of this neglect.

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