The Alchemist, a Magical
Ben Jonson's 1610 satire The Alchemist is being given a splendid production by one of the Bay area's finest regional theater groups. This is by far Berkeley Repertory Theatre's best offering of the 2000 season so far. There are two more productions to come. The play has been a sell out almost every night. I did not see the recent production by the New York's Classic Stage Company. However, I cannot see how it could have been any better then Berkeley Rep's.
One reason Ben Jonson's plays are rarely produced in the United States is that they are very wordy and it's hard to get the ear attuned to the Elizabethan rhythms. He also sets up his characters with long soliloquies, which makes the first few scenes between the co-conspirators seem muddled and difficult to comprehend. That soon passes as the ear catches the tones and, once over that hurdle, the play is a joy to behold.
The convoluted plot has the scurrilous trio, "Face", "Subtle", and "Dol", bilking greedy customers of their silver and gold. With a bag of tricks larger than their victims' purses, they manage to pilfer everything from their gullible prey. They have set up shop in the home of Face's unwitting master, Lovewit, who is away until the plague runs its course.
Face lures the customers in, then defers to Subtle, who bamboozles them with his flair for the occult and his own crazy brand of science. Dol uses her womanly wiles to lift any stray coins that the other two have left behind. These three assume a variety of identities to pry the money from the greedy prey.
The customers are wonderful also; a law clerk who wants to buy a fairy spirit to help him win at cards, a wealthy nobleman who expects to buy a philosopher's stone which will turn metal into gold, a tobacconist wants business advice, and a young 19 year old widow. Finishing the list are two fatuous Puritans who want a part of the philosopher stone so they may dominate the world with their fundamental religious ways. The way the unholy trio bilks these people is fascinating. Jonson brings the play to a great end when the deceptions come unglued and the victims line up outside the house for justice. However one of the trio never loses "Face" at the end.
This is some of the best acting of the year since all of the troupe are veteran actors. Geoff Hoyle plays Face. He is deft and devilish in the role of the chief of the conspirators. Mr. Hoyle originated the role of Zazu in "The Lion King" in New York. Ken Ruta, another great actor, steals the show playing the terminally befuddled nobleman who wants good food and good sex. Sharon Lockwood, one of the Bay Area's better actresses, crossed the gender line to play Subtle. She rattles off her nonsensical incantations in a salesman's staccato and she is extraordinary in the role. Gerald Hilken is delightful as the awed, eager and slow-witted Druggist and the ever engaging S. J. Le May plays the confused and enigmatic widow, Dame Pliant. Ms. Le May was also very good in Christmas with the Crawfords several years ago. That should give you a clue to this talented cast.
Kent Dorsey's set is magnificent. It is a two scene set on a round stage showing the exterior and interior of the house. The interior is riddled with trap doors on its flagstone floor and the doors are put to good use.
What makes the play brilliant is the direction by Tony Taconite, which brings out the best of the superb cast of Bay Area's veteran actors, maintains the setting and proclaims this production of this timeless play as one of the best entertainments of the season.
The play runs until April 6. Anyone in the Bay Area who likes good theater should run to Berkeley to see this production.