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Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Alchemist (Or, the second linguistically challenging play of the week)

L-R: Stephen Ouimette as Subtle, Brigit
Wilson as Dol Common and Jonathan Goad
as Face. Photo by David Hou
The Alchemist, by Ben Johnson
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Designed by Carolyn M. Smith (set and costumes), Steven Hawkins (lights), Thomas Ryder Payne (sound), John Stead (fights)

It is only natural that the Stratford Festival add Ben Johnson to its playbill from time to time.

That Johnson is a contemporary (and sometime critic) of Shakespeare would be reason enough, but Johnson’s plays have a familiar feel for Stratford playgoers; the language and silhouettes are often similar.

Stephen Ouimette as Subtle.
Photo by David Hou
However where Shakespeare’s characters might wear the robes of nobility, the robes worn by Johnson’s characters would have resembled comfy bathrobes to Elizabethan audiences – in other words, Johnson’s characters wore what the audience members themselves would wear. And where Shakespeare’s characters spoke often in lofty poetry, Johnson’s characters spoke like his audience, in earthy prose full of colloquial slang.

Therein lies perhaps the biggest challenge in staging a Johnson play – taking a relatable and funny plot and making it sound relatable to a modern audience.  A reference to “Clim o’ the Cloughs or Claribels” makes as much sense to us as “Superman and Lois Lane” would make to Elizabethans, but you cannot just re-write a Johnson play and substitute modern language (well you can, but it’s a risk that would certainly result in ridicule and scholarly ire).

But that’s why you pay the big bucks at Stratford – to see such a play interpreted and tweaked so well that the story feels as comfortable to us as to that original audience in 1610.

It is clear that director Antoni Cimolino took great pains to adjust the text where extra elucidation was necessary but it is so subtly done it is nearly seamless. His masterful cast does the rest.

L-R: Jonathan Goad (Foreground) as Face, Stephen Oiumette as Subtle,
Wayne Best as Surley and Jamie Mac as Kastril. Photo by David Hou.
Jonathan Goad is back in the type of role Stratford’s audiences love to see him play, a rogue and scoundrel who is sometimes known as General Face, sometimes known as the scurrilous lab assistant Lungs, and is really a gentleman’s butler, named Jeremy. Jeremy’s master has left London fearing an outbreak of plague (really happened at that time), so Jeremy has joined forces with a conman and prostitute and with them is merrily scamming the various clerks, merchants and hypocritical Puritans who cross their paths. Mr. Goad revels in this part as “the roper”, and the audience revels with him.

It comes as a surprise to no one that Face double-crosses his partners in crime, the prostitute Dol Common (“the lure”), played by Brigit Wilson, and “the inside man” Subtle, played by the  chameleon-like Stephen Ouimette. These three actors hold the reigns of the whole play and don’t miss a beat, even when the cons pile up and the marks start crossing paths.

Jonathan Goad as 'Lungs' and Scott Wentworth
as Epicure Mammon. Photo by David Hou.
Ok, they might have missed one beat – I am almost certain that Scott Wentworth caused two of them to nearly crack up when he appeared as the gargantuan Epicure Mammon. Mr. Wentworth went on the chew not only the scenery in this (literally) larger-than life role, but the text and audience as well – that is one actor who knows how to use an aside. As for the other marks (or victims) they include a slew of memorable performances: Steve Ross’s earnestly na├»ve Able (poor guy, your heart goes out to him); Wayne Best again showing off some comic chops as the skeptical Surly; and Jessica B. Hill as Dame Pliant – who may not have much to say but makes up for it in feisty, flouncy action. Just to name a few.

Oh, just go buy a ticket to The Alchemist and enjoy the ride through 1610 London already; it is thoroughly hilarious... and that is no con.

The Alchemist continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 3rd.

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