The Alchemist


Editorial Review

'Alchemist's' Got the Get-Up, but No 'Go'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

You know you're on thin comic ice when all the best entrances are made by the clothes.

Not to take anything away from costume designer Murell Horton's work for "The Alchemist," but the frocks regularly upstage the actors in this soggy souffle of a comedy directed by Michael Kahn. The get-ups in Shakespeare Theatre Company's modern mix-and-match version of Ben Jonson's Jacobean tickler are supposed to leave you in stitches: Check out the leonine David Sabin, in follicle tribute to the Donald and suited up like a gilded lizard, or the voluptuous Kate Skinner, descending a staircase in the glittery pouffe of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

The sartorial sight gags, though, have a desperate edge. They put you less in mind of a sparkling theater game than a Halloween party. (What crazy outfit is going to come through the door next?) And a certain zaniness ordinarily plays to Kahn's strengths: His talent for teasing loopy business out of the work of old masters has been affirmed again and again, in delectable productions on the order of an inspired "Love's Labor's Lost" and "The Silent Woman" and "Cyrano."

Perhaps the company deserves a bit of a break, a chance to catch its breath after an exhilarating year, one that has featured an exceptionally rich bill of fare ("King Lear," "Phdre," the the Free-for-All staging of "Taming of the Shrew," "The Dog in the Manger"). Or could it be that "The Alchemist" -- a last-minute replacement on the Shakespeare's schedule, after "The Bacchae" fell out -- did not get quite the thoroughgoing conceptual vetting of comedies past?

Because the concept feels perfunctory. Transplanting the swindlers of 1610 -- who promise their victims they'll produce a magic stone that can turn lesser metals into gold -- to some general idea of the present-day appears to have been formulated principally in a design meeting. James Noone's rendering of the front parlor of a luxe town house is elegant, if not always a suitable accommodation for Jonson's jests. Given 21st-century sanitation in a stylish manse, for example, a running joke about the ghastly stench that never leaves the guest bathroom doesn't generate the desired mileage.

Much more confoundingly, the women of "The Alchemist" are narrowly cast as instruments of lust: One's a prostitute, the other a young widow who strips to a bustier. It doesn't prove the most inviting of platforms for contemporary parallel.

The play is about the art of the sting, with the cons of several fools unfolding at once. Face (Michael Milligan), the mansion's butler, who's spirited his employer (Wynn Harmon) out of town, turns the place into scam central with partners Subtle (David Manis) and Skinner's Dol. Each of their marks is assigned a daffy disposition and ludicrous wardrobe: Drugger (Jeff Biehl) wears hippie clothes; Dapper (Nick Cordileone) glides in like one of the sports of "Guys and Dolls" (and even sings "Luck Be a Lady"); pastor Tribulation Wholesome (Timothy Thomas, with the requisite Southern drawl), is done up in starched-into-holiness white. The audience reserves its warmest reception for the arrival of Sabin's fop-tastic Sir Epicure Mammon, a gent of a certain age who looks as if he has been rummaging in Elvis's closet.

Manis's Subtle, posing as the titular alchemist who can enrich them all, has to resort to a nearby closet himself, for the quick changes that enable him to conform to each dupe's idea of a mystic. Although they're energetically up to snuff, neither Manis nor Milligan is able to whip this manic masquerade into a truly pleasurable froth.

So in the absence of magic, "The Alchemist" settles for goofy runway show.

After the last silly costume is stowed away, the schemers are exposed, and some of them are treated to a deserved comeuppance. On this particular evening, the lesson seems to be writ large: You can't win 'em all.

The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson. Directed by Michael Kahn. Lighting, Peter West; composer, Adam Wernick; sound, Martin Desjardins; fight choreography, Robb Hunter; voice and text, Ellen O'Brien. With Robert Creighton, Kyle Fabel, Rachel Holt, Alex Morf, Chris Dinolfo, Nicole Halmos, Cameron McNary, Brian MacDonald. About 2 hours 10 minutes.