1. The Play. I don’t think we would have gone to see the Shakespeare Theater’s production of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”, if we hadn’t won tickets in a raffle this summer. But we did go, without great expectation, Thursday night. We had heard that the 16th century language was hard to follow, and that it was a silly play.
Well, it is silly, but there was no challenge with the language (which in fact seems much easier to follow than almost-contemporary Shakespeare), and the slapstick antics make the play appear to be almost contemporary. It is a satirical play in its substance and a farce in its style. I confess ignorance to its original setting and context, so I don’t know if there were other farces in Elizabethan England. We think of French theater when we think of farces, but there was nothing French about this one.
The wealthy owner of the house leaves London to escape the plague, his trusted butler remaining behind. Taking advantage of his freedom, the butler and two friends, one male and one female, take over the house and use it as their base for a series of con schemes, to defraud the general populace of their hard earned jewels and money, as they cater to their greed. The lead con is an “alchemist”, who has discovered the philosopher’s stone that can turn everyone’s wishes into gold, as well as the ability to bring good luck in gambling ventures, and attract beautiful women galore.
In order to do this, the three schemers take on various personna, in order to meet the needs and expectation of their various clients. This adds a great twist to the normal farce, where people are shuffled in and out of many stage doors as others arrive of whom they must be kept in ignorance. Here, in addition, each time, someone new arrives, our alchemist himself must step into a closet and change his clothes and identity, which each outfit more elaborate than the last.
The production is highly professional, the cast strong, the set works like a charm, and the costumes are flawless.
So who is satired? Alchemists and their foolishness, con artists, gamblers, lawyers, churchmen, money grubbers, drug dealers – an entire raft of fascinating types who seem as relevant to the 21st century as they must have been to the 16th.