“O Rare Ben Jonson!” reads the epitaph on the tomb, in London’s Westminster Abbey, of the great Elizabethan and Jacobean poet and playwright. Though Jonson is considered, along with Shakespeare, to be one of the two towering figures of English Renaissance drama, his “rarity” is most clearly manifested today in the unlikelihood of anyone reading or producing his plays.
Undaunted, Bonnie Monte, New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director, has painstakingly and lovingly adapted and staged Mr. Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610), a wild, irreverent satiric comedy, one of his two most famous plays (along with Volpone from 1605). Even in this streamlined, artfully directed, skillfully acted, impressively fine and funny production, the reasons why you may never have had an opportunity to see a Ben Jonson play are obvious.
While Shakespeare may have been, as Jonson himself described him, “not of an age but for all time,” Jonson lived in the moment and was decidedly a man of his time. The Alchemist, for example, takes place in Jonson’s present-day Blackfriars, a suburb of London, during the Plague. Firmly rooted in the corruptions of the real world, Mr. Jonson’s comedy is satiric, holding the mirror up to human beings and their actions, showing us our folly and foibles so that we can make amends.
Heroism? Idealism? Admirable characters? True romance? Not likely in Jonson’s world. Money takes priority over love here, and these characters, all driven by greed and ego-centrism, are not easy to warm up to, despite an enormous, boisterous energy, a vitality and even grandeur emanating from the sheer cunning, creativity, and enjoyment in their out-and-out knavery. And there may also be particular resonances, some lessons to be learned by contemporary audiences, engulfed in the relentless self-promotions, aggressive marketing, and offensive sales pitches of our materialistic world.
Ms. Monte’s adaptation of The Alchemist, including “at least 1000 changes to Jonson’s original text,” deletion of “various minor characters and locations,” “hundreds of cuts and word changes,” and many lines rewritten is helpful in clarifying or eliminating eccentric and incomprehensible syntax, topical allusions, obscure vocabulary and colloquialisms. Those changes, along with some superb performances and a fine sense of comic timing throughout, help to ensure that the humor comes across here. At three hours running time, however, with sustained close listening a requisite and some comprehension challenges remaining, even this new, more accessible Alchemist will not appeal to all tastes.
Jonson follows a classical dramatic structure to frame what looks like almost a celebration of anarchy in his plot. The Alchemist respects the three unities of time (one day), place (the Blackfriars’ house of Lovewit who has left town), and action (Lovewit’s servant and two friends take over the residence as a headquarters for operating their “alchemy” business, involving various fraudulent enterprises that thrive on the gullibility and greed of their victims).
The elaborate unit set, artfully designed by Jonathan Wentz, is rich in detail and scores top marks for functionality and aesthetics. Representing the interior of Lovewit’s house and offering twelve different entrances and exits on two levels, this setting, like a 17th century version of the interior for Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off, puts us squarely in the realm of farcical comedy. The action to take place here is bound to be fast and frenetic.
Nikki Delhomme’s bold, wildly creative costumes, are just sufficiently extreme to enrich the characters’ over-the-top behaviors and personalities. The colorful, memorable wardrobe choices greatly add to the spirit and comedy of the world of The Alchemist. Lighting by Steven Rosen contributes to the relatively clear staging of the chaotic action of this play and also enhances the energetic, buoyant tone, and mood of the piece.
At the core of the action in The Alchemist are the three ‘dirty rotten scoundrels’ — Lovewit’s butler Face (Jon Barker), Subtle the “alchemist” (Bruce Cromer), and a prostitute, Dol Common (Aedin Moloney) — who take over the house while the owner Lovewit (John Ahlin) is away. Although the house is supposed to be kept closed to guard against spread of the Plague, the clever trio entertain a steady stream of eager customers.
First comes Dapper (Jon Sprik), a naïve young lawyer’s clerk seeking a “familiar,” a fairy queen summoned through Subtle’s magical powers, to assist Dapper’s gambling ventures. Then Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) appears, begging supernatural assistance for his tobacco business. Next to arrive is the wealthy Sir Epicure Mammon (Brent Harris), voracious in his appetites for money, food, and women, and determined to enlist Subtle’s alchemy in acquiring the legendary philosopher’s stone, that turns all metals into gold. Accompanying Sir Epicure is Pertinax Surly (Kevin Isola), a voice of reason and skepticism, who quickly assesses the fraudulence of Face and his cohorts, but, of course, is ignored and scorned by all.
Two Anabaptist religious figures, an angry Ananias (James Michael Reilly) and his colleague Tribulation Wholesome (Raphael Nash Thompson), also prove ready victims in their greedy scheme to see their money turned into gold. Drugger returns and introduces a rich, alluring young widow, Dame Pliant (Kristen Kittel) and her brother Kastril (Seamus Mulcahy) into the mix.
As Face and Subtle battle over the affections of Dame Pliant, Dol, in the guise of a “royal lady” who has gone mad, romances Sir Epicure. Dapper is gagged and blindfolded and hustled off to the privy, where he spends most of the rest of the play. Drugger and Surly, who is now disguised as a Spanish nobleman, join the heated pursuit of the comely widow, and a huge explosion from the alchemy laboratory, offstage left, adds yet another layer to the madcap confusion.
The unexpectedly early return home of Lovewit finally brings the chaos and increasingly feverish, creative machinations of the three con artists to a head, and a hilarious final scene ensues, where Face, back to his actual persona as Jeremy the housekeeper/ butler, must sort out the insanity and explain the bizarre situation to his bewildered master.
The ensemble of thirteen, all experienced Shakespeare Theatre professionals, take on this challenging work with energy, intelligence, and finely honed comedic style. The characters with their particular quirks and vanities come across clearly and memorably. The actors successfully communicate the difficult language here and, under Ms. Monte’s careful direction, the wild convolutions of this zany plot become mostly coherent.
In this summer of darkness for Princeton Summer Theater, New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s highly entertaining production of Ben Jonson’s classic The Alchemist is well worth the hour-long trip north to Madison, especially for aficionados of Ben Jonson and classic English theater. Ms. Monte has composed a remarkable adaptation of a masterpiece and staged it brilliantly to win over contemporary audiences. This is a production to garner appreciation and enjoyment of the rarity of “rare Ben Jonson” and to offer hope that his plays will grace 21st century stages more often in the future.