Remember the 2013 award-winning comedy drama film American Hustle, wherein two con artists are forced by an FBI agent to set up an elaborate sting operation—called in the press "Abscam"—to net corrupt politicians, including the mayor of Camden and New Jersey senator Clifford Case, only to get ripped-off themselves? Think that was the quintessential scam case?
Well, think again: in 1610, the Elizabethan playwright (and Shakespeare's contemporary) Ben Jonson penned The Alchemist, a boisterous study of con artists at work in plague-ridden London, making money off the gullible by claiming to have the Philosopher's Stone, a magical charm that supposedly was able to turn base metal into the noble metals of gold and silver.
Fast-forward 404 years later: The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has done just that—not that Jonson's play is base metal—but with some adaptation to make it palatable and more coherent for modern audiences, Director Bonnie J. Monte and her merry troupe of mountebanks have taken the play from the page to the stage in a sparkling production of The Alchemist that is pure gold, through and through! (Right: Jon Barker as Face helps the Alchemist in the laboratory)
The term alchemist isn't in our modern lexicon, except perhaps as a term of derision, but alchemy was a science used in the Middle Ages with the goal of changing ordinary metals into gold. The precursors of modern scientists, alchemists were considered charlatans, a point that Jonson makes many times in his comedy.
The play involves an unscrupulous trio living in the London townhouse of one Master Lovewit, who has abandoned the city to escape the plague. Led by the butler (called Face by his colleagues and Jeremy by his employer), Subtle and Dol Common have set up their headquarters to entice susceptible people to purchase a nonexistent philosopher's stone. Their marks include a dimwitted tobacco seller (Jeffrey M. Bender right, with Bruce Cromer), a nobleman who is himself trying to deceive a skeptic, a pair of religious dissenters, a would-be gentleman who wants to learn how to duel, and his dopey widowed sister who, he has decreed, will wed only a knight. Of course, when the master returns, the jig is up, Jeremy double-crosses his two partners in crime and, well, you'll have to find out for yourself what happens next!
With a dash of Groucho Marx and a pinch of Monty Python (The Ministry of Silly Walks), Bonnie Monte's expert direction keeps the fast-talking swindlers and their gulls on a perpetual roll, carefully choreographing their frenetic movements around the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre's stage so that no collisions (other than those that are planned) occur. For the first few minutes, you might have some trouble discerning the various scams in progress, but matters soon sort themselves out, and our delight at watching them put into action and come to fruition ensues. That the action unfolds on a set by Jonathan Wentz reminiscent of an Elizabethan theater adds authenticity to our pleasure.
Of course, this madcap mayhem would only be possible with a cast of über-talented actors, all of them STNJ veterans. Bruce Cromer is magnificent as the wily avaricious Subtle, aka Dr. Necromancer. He is matched by the versatile Jon Barker, who manages to switch identities with a quick costume change; as the director of the con, he controls all action onstage with a deft hand! And Aedin Moloney is delightful as the profane Dol Common, expertly delivering double entendres (and there are plenty) through dialogue and movement! (Above L-R: Jon Barker, Bruce Cromer, Kevin Isola and Brent Harris)
As the gulls, John Sprik is the amusingly naive lawyer Dapper, who wants a charm to help him win at gambling. Jeffrey M. Bender again shows his comedic chops as Abel Drugger, the thick-headed tobacco seller who wants some feng sui advice for his new shop. Brent Harris has a field day chewing up the scenery (legally) as Sir Epicure Mammon (in photo to left, with Aedin Molony as Dol), anxious for gold, and ready to con Pertinax Surly, who does not believe there is such a thing as a philosopher's stone. The latter is played by the wonderful Kevin Isola casting a wily fish eye on the hocus pocus being "performed" before him. At first, I was a bit disappointed that Isola didn't seem to have a chance to display his comedic talent, but I should not have worried. He appears later in the play as a Spanish count, yammering in Spanish and walking oddly as he courts the bosomy young widow Dame Pliant, played with clueless aplomb by Kristen Kittel. And Seamus Mulcahy as her foppish wannabe gentleman brother Kastril brings down the house just by walking across the stage and speaking in the artificial accent he imagines gentlemen would use.
Raphael Nash Thompson as Tribulation Wholesome and James Michael Reilly as his sidekick Ananias provide a sobering counterweight to the flighty company. Dour-faced Reilly uses understated acting to achieve comedy while Nash's lighter delivery shows us that even spiritual souls can be conned, especially when the riches can be used to care for orphans and widows. And, finally, the appearance of John Ahlin as Lovewit seals the deal. Once again, this terrific comedic actor's great timing and delivery add to the merriment as we wonder just what he will do when he discovers the plot led by his "trusty" butler. He does not disappoint; in fact, his reaction will surprise you.
The pandemonium is enhanced by Nikki Delhomme's magnificent costumes fashioned from luxurious fabrics in sprightly colors. And Steven Rosen's lighting and Karen Graybash's sound design are superb additions to the production.
The Alchemist is not often performed on modern stages, mostly because it is dense and undecipherable to modern theatergoers. Bonnie Monte deserves a great big thank you for adapting the script to make it palatable for contemporary tastes. The result is one of the funniest, bawdiest comedies performed by brilliant actors in an astonishing production that I have ever seen. Truly, as she writes in her Director's Notes, "convert[ed] old gold into new gold.” Do not miss this amazing feat.
The Alchemist will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through August 31. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org on line.
Photos: © Jerry Dalia, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey