Although this is the American Shakespeare Center, the company likes to shake things up a little each season and do some non-Shakespeare, usually a play by one of Will's contemporaries. This season (the Actors' Renaissance Season, in which the actors stage productions without benefit of directors, costumers, or much rehearsal time), we get two. The Roman Actor by Phillip Massinger opens March 10, and The Alchemist by Ben Jonson opened last week.
The Jonson play is hilarious. It features a trio of con artists and a host of gullible marks all too willing to believe that the "alchemist" can turn worthless metal into gold. And of course, he can -- gold coins and jewelry for the bad guys. The charming bad guys, that is. John Harrell is Subtle, the alchemist, and he's terrific, as always as he blinds his victims with pseudo-science, smoke, and mirrors, appearing in many guises depending on the desires of the greedy seeker. Benjamin Curns turns in another great performance as Face, the housekeeper, the shill who delivers victims to the clutches of Subtle. He's especially funny when he takes on the role of "Lung," who operates the alchemy furnaces. Dol Common, played by Allison Glenzer, rounds out the trio, and in this part she gets to move beyond "lusty wench" (although there's some of that, too) as she takes on the different roles the con requires.
While these three are the core of the play, orbiting around them are the victims. There's Denice Burbach as Dapper, a clerk with a gambling problem; Miriam Donald as Abel Drugger, who wants his shop to succeed; Bob Jones and Chris Johnston as Tribulation and Ananias, Brethren seeking to raise money for the church; and Tyler Moss as Kastril, the angry boy who wants to learn the art of quarreling (Moss's cowboy drawl is hilarious) and his widowed sister Dame Pliant, played by Sarah Fallon. But most of all there is Epicure Mammon, a greedy glutton played by Gregory Jon Phelps. He above all the others has his sights set on accumulating vast riches (riches that will buy food and drink, primarily) and so falls the farthest when the scheme is revealed. Phelps in this part doesn't have to open his mouth to be funny--there's the wig, the fat-suit, the high heels--but he's even funnier when he does. Jonson must have had a blast writing the part of Sir Epicure, and it looks like Phelps is having fun playing the part. The only one who sees through the plan is Surly, played by Daniel Kennedy, who manages some deception of his own. And the game is going very nicely until Lovewit (played by Rene Thornton, Jr.), who owns the house where all this is happening, arrives home unexpectedly. Uh oh.
It's great fun, with lots of excellent performances.
Note: This isn't the first time ASC has produced The Alchemist at the Blackfriars. During the inaugural season at the theater, back in 2001, the "Odyssey Tour" did the play with David Loar as Subtle the alchemist. It's nice to see it appear again.