Friday, August 28, 2015
Scammers, or "The Alchemist" by Ben Jonson (aka Summer Vacation Part the Second)
"Three con artists use pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to fleece all the greedy, lustful fools in London. A rare chance to see an uproarious satire by the same Shakespearean contemporary who wrote Bartholomew Fair."
Our second foray into the Stratford experience was a play whose chief draw for me was the presence in the cast of Stephen Ouimette, whose work I absolutely adored in the Canadian TV show "Slings and Arrows."
What? You say you've never seen "Slings and Arrows"? The fabulously funny three-season show about a fictional "New Burbage Theatre Festival" in Canada, the backstage goings on between actors, business managers, and at least one ghostly artistic director? Well, you must remedy that now, don't you think?
Back to the play. "The Alchemist," staged in Stratford's black-box Tom Patterson Theatre, begins in a tumult and roar, with the sound of glass breaking and the three principals falling onto the stage. Their names are Face (a conman), Doll Common (a prostitute), and Subtle (another conman, the sketchy alchemist of the title, brilliantly played by Ouimette). As is often the case with this genre (not to mention with the figures we find in the bible), names are everything. They tell us (nearly) all we need to know about each character, from Lovewit, to Dapper, to Sir Epicure Mammon. The rest we need to know, we learn from their interactions with the conmen and woman, whose job is to wheedle the money out of their pockets.
As I write this, my daughter is filling out job applications. She received a reply to an inquiry on Craigslist telling her that they needed to do an immediate background check, and would she please send her social security number? I don't know that "The Alchemist" provided her with the smarts she needed to know that this was a scam. I do know that only one of the Londoners who enter the rented dwelling of the confolk questions what he is seeing... Surly, who watches his friend Mammon fall hook, line, and sinker for the promise of the Philosopher's stone.
In the background of all this, is the plague. The apartment the three confolk are renting was vacated by someone fleeing its scourge. And so the absurd and bawdy humor, the gullibility of all the patrons of this shady establishment, and the urgent motivation to make a quick quid: all are played out against the backdrop of terror, and death.
We don't see that, maybe we don't even get it, but the Londoners in Jonson's 1610 audience surely did. For me, the experience was one of watching human foibles at their most naked, and I'd be lying if I didn't see aspects of my own character here and there. Maybe that's how these satires were most effective. Show me Dame Pliant, a thoroughly outrageous example of an impulsive woman with questionable judgment in matters of love, and I might be able to see some of her foibles in myself. Maybe.
"The Alchemist" was a breathless kind of experience, in which you look at your theater companions as the lights come up for intermission, and you all burst into laughter simultaneously as you try to process what. Just. Happened!?
Another Stratford gem. Another glorious experience of our summer vacation.
And, seriously, "Slings and Arrows." If you like Shakespeare. Or if you like theatre. Or if you like good comedy. And Shakespeare.
Cast and production info on "The Alchemist" can be found here.