MADISON, NJ – A little malicious deception goes a long way. That’s the outrageous plot line of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist.”
This convoluted tale is performed with gusto under the smooth direction of Bonnie Monte. With disguises, exaggeration and pretension, we more or less follow Subtle (Bruce Cromer) and Face(Jon Barker) as they cook up potent chemicals and witchcraft to convince a variety of people that they can turn practically any metal into gold.
Cromer is gleefully entertaining as he hoodwinks this one and that one, while Barker dons multiple disguises, including a pirate and a ‘chemist’ with goggles. It turns out, however, that he’s actually the butler for Lovewit, who owns the large home in London. John Ahlin is the homeowner, not appearing until late in the play, but very much a part of the proceedings. It seems he has left the house in the care of his butler while he escapes the Plague of 1610.
Brent Harris is the over-the-top Sir Epicure Mammon, with swirling cape and golden tights. He’s hilarious as he tries to play suitor to Dol Common (Aedin Moloney.) Mommon is led to believe she’s a wealthy countess, when she’s really a local prostitute. She dupes another visitor, appearing as a fairy with wings. The whole thing is utterly outlandish.
Moloney deftly changes persona here, a far cry from her stunning performance as George Eliot in “A Most Dangerous Woman.” A similar contrast can be made with Harris, who rendered Atticus Finch so movingly in “To Kill a Mocking Bird.”
Jeffrey M. Bender as Drugger and James Michael Reilly as Ananias also add a strong comic touch. Kristen Kittel is Dame Pliant, a widow who is quite fetching to the men and all a-dither whenever she is courted, especially by a Spaniard in disguise.
John Wentz’s handsome set design reflects the Tudor style of a manor house of the 1600s, with double staircases, numerous doorways and hidden spaces. To handle action outside the front door, a portion of the set is simply pushed forward. Nikki Delhomme’s costumes are an eccentric mix of robes and doublets, rags and velvets.
According to program notes, Monte adapted the play, streamlining characters and clarifying language. That has certainly paid off in making this production accessible and a rare treat. “The Alchemist” is great fun, but don’t expect anything profound. On the other hand, it does remind us once again that human nature never changes. Performances continue through August 31. For tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit ShakesepeareNJ.org.
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