David Manis as Subtle, Jeff Biehl as Abel Drugger and Michael Milligan as Face
in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, directed by Michael Kahn.
Photo by Scott Suchman.
I can’t speak for any other reviewer, but for me the most enjoyable reviews to write are the ones where I really enjoyed a production but still have some minor quibbles. A little Monday-morning quarterbacking is fun for everyone if you don’t take it too seriously and aren’t a jerk about it. Perfect productions are less fun because there’s less to say about them. Quality theater involves a very subtle energy that’s difficult – if not impossible – to convey to a reader. Bad theater is less fun still because you have to be a special flavor of jerk to enjoy smack-talking someone’s baby, and a lot of people put a lot of energy into putting something on stage.
The least enjoyable kind of theater to write about is the kind that’s always puzzling to see, considering how many people come to it with so much passion: the simply okay, unengaging and largely forgettable production.
Care to guess where The Alchemist fits into this?
Nothing in the production offends; the worst reaction you get is a “huh?” from the seemingly slapdash choices of costumes, perhaps with a bit of eye-rolling over some really uninspired choices. Case in point: the above picture shows Biehl in the middle as the character Abel Drugger, transformed from the tobacconist in Jonson’s play to the “tobacconist,” complete with hippie garb that the main characters ape in order to better con him. The baggie of whacky tobaccy makes its appearance a few times over the course of the show to the expected snickers.
There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just lazy. It doesn’t make the characters more interesting or help you empathize with them. It doesn’t make it more obvious why they’re so quick to be gulled. It’s just played for a cheap laugh the same way you’ve seen it played for a cheap laugh a hundred times before. Turn on your television any night this week and you’ll see the same thing. The dad who desperately wants to be liked by his kids and uses inappropriate slang. The well-meaning white liberal who introduces the one black man he knows to the one black woman he knows. The conservative who proposes selling the national park system off to pay the government debt because only the poor need free places to see nature.
Just like those shows on tv, it’s obvious that a lot of money and talent went into producing The Alchemist. The sets are beautiful, as are the costumes. The acting is fine and the blocking is borderline impressive, given how many times people have to dash in and out of the scene as the shenanigans progress. The problem is, if I can find this in reruns on television, why would I leave my house and pay to see this?
Maybe just to see why theater can’t bring in the under 35 crowd without massive giveaways.