The In-Person Experience: Red Bull Theater’s The Alchemist
It’s not exactly the set I was imagining as I entered the theatre at New World Stages to see Red Bull Theater’s production of The Alchemist, a feistily adapted farce by Jeffrey Hatcher, who also brought forth the much sharper The Government Inspector for Red Bull. Based upon the 1610 comedy by Ben Jonson (The Devil Is an Ass ), this satirical comedy of humours is a wacky surprise, not at all what I thought I was walking into. For some odd (silly, uninformed) reason, I thought the evening’s entertainment was going to be connected to that age-old mystical tale of a Young Andalusian shepherd and his journey toward the pyramids of Egypt to understand the idea of destiny, written with soul in 1988 by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. Oops, but no, did I get that wrong, and for that, I was and am delightfully mistaken. This creature from Red Bull is a door-slamming slice of ridiculousness, straight out of the playbook of English farce, revolving around tricksters, con artists, and all those wild, fraudulent characters who dive in with them, hook or by crook, looking for advantage over all others.
Jonson, a playwright that was seen by some as “the second most important English dramatist, after William Shakespeare”, unashamedly satirized all social classes in England, particularly the follies, vanities, greed, and vices of mankind. He liked to mock the weakness and gullibility of humans, and with that randy idea fully intact, the Red Bull scam is on. An outbreak of a plague in London has caused the owner of this house, a well off gentleman of means to flee, leaving it in the care of his butler. Not a wise move, it turns out, but the wearing of masks during this London plague give this production ample moments to send out winks and knowing nods to the crowd that register, although far more comically than dramatically. The side glances and winks to our present-day situation draw chuckles and smiles, as the play sinks most beautifully into a pile of pure silliness. The success of the ruse hinges solely on this stellar cast, who rise to the occasion, performing spectacularly and hilariously, coming so close to perfection that you happily give them all the kudos they deserve.
Reuniting play adaptor Hatcher with some of the same scurvy solid artists that brought forth the somewhat finer The Government Inspector, director Jesse Berger (RB’s Pericles, The Maids), along with this talented creative team; made up of set designer Alexis Distler (Public’s Toast), costume designer Tilly Grimes (MCC’s Seared), lighting designer Cha See (Signature’s one is two), and sound designer/composer Greg Pliska (Broadway’s War Horse), the production rings in festive fun at the door, as they all romp around the stage with glee. They expertly draw out the laughs at every possible quick change and con, and turn this copper play into production gold. The play overflows with silly characterizations and jokes that mostly register with delight, even when accompanied by a groan. The play does lack a certain emotional heart in its hammy core, but the production moves at such a strong crisp pace that the ridiculousness keeps us solidly on board, hitting their metaphoric marks with precision. The broad physical comedy, thanks to the strong able cast, never fails to connect the anarchistic dots, nimbily pulling us in to their clever orchestrations while delivering the farce up in pure English swindler fashion.
Pretending to be whatever is required of them, the three leads; the wonderfully engaging Manoel Felciano (ATC’s The Secret Life of Bees) as the mischievous butler turned scoundrel, Face; the phenomenal Reg Rogers (Broadway’s Tootsie) as the unnaturally named Subtle overdoing his words with a brilliant energy that is infectious; and the deliciously gifted Jennifer Sánchez (Broadway’s The Rose Tattoo) as the diabolical female compatriot Dol Common; use the house of the absent master to swindle and scheme their way to a full-to-overflowing trunk of gold. They literally are turning their crap into solid comic gold at every turn of the doorknob. Bilking their prey as much as they can, the three find madcap fun in the conning of what appear to be all the high class fools of England, gathered together all in one square block. Some are, but some aren’t, as stupid as the three believe them to be, and in that notion is where they play hard and strong, as the real comic pleasure comes from those who walk through that door. Those who came to be conned are the ones gifting us with the silliness we need, unpacking all of their greed and their glitz; their faults and their follies, for all the world to see.
They saunter in to the game, giving it their all, and we gladly hold the door open for them. Nathan Christopher (Jungle Theater’s Lobby Hero) is utterly charming as the love-sick Abel Drugger, who pines with all his wide-eyed heart for the lovely Dame Pliant, wickedly portrayed by Teresa Ava Lim (Broadway’s Junk). One can’t help but giggle at their names, especially the downright dullard, Dapper, hilariously played by the great Carson Elrod (CSC’s The Liar), finding layers upon layers of deliciousness with every grimace. Sir Epicure Mannon, joyfully portrayed by the electric Jacob Ming-Trent (Delacorte’s Merry Wives) mashes up lust and greed with aplomb, while Stephen DeRosa (Broadway’s Gary) finds his “Queen of the Fairies” funny bone as the Dutch Puritan named Ananais. Louis Mustillo (The Geffen’s Key Largo) as the wonderfully sly Surly and Allen Tedder (Delacorte’s King Lear) as Kastril bring epic silliness to the upright forefront beautifully, never losing track of the reasoning, nor the ridiculousness of the action.
The Alchemist is not the strongest of plays, but you might not notice that it lacks the emotional strength of the more engaging The Government Inspector. Berger and Hatcher cleverly find the energy within to keep the story slamming along, delivering the laughs as often as possible. The structure is weak, but Red Bull’s production dances above in delight, with the strong cast finding the fun and the frivolity at every drop of the coin. I saw half of the con coming, but The Alchemist still found its way into my heart, surprising and keeping me smiling right up to the hilarious end. They did find that magic that turns imperfect copper into solid gold. No way to deny that trick.