At this point in the season, those of us who are going to the theater are over the novelty. The artistic directors’ program notes (“Welcome back!”) no longer raise the same tingle, and preshow announcements (“Thank you for returning to live performance!”) now get only respectful applause. We’re back; we’ve been back. But in the last few weeks, there has been one new sign of true return — silliness. So much of the post-shutdown programming has been fraught, loaded down with all the weight of politics, pandemic, and intra-theatrical reckoning. Everything was either relevant, or piercing, or a site for communion. But now, as a true symptom of a healthy theater, nonsense has returned too. Why this play? Why now? Pfffft.
Once you enter Red Bull Theater’s good-natured staging of The Alchemist, your troubles should all dissolve into its warm, candlelit foolishness. Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Ben Jonson’s 1610 farce is a giddy whirl, sweeter and less cynical than the original. Hatcher’s zippy two-hour version uses big slices of the plot but simplifies and streamlines the 17th-century language, e.g., no one says “gudgeon” at any time. Hatcher has also rowed back on the play’s bawdiness. I looked up Jonson’s original, and I do miss this huffy line, spoken by a homeowner who can’t believe what a mess he’s found: “Here, I find … ‘MADAM,’ with a dildo, writ o’ the walls.” (A dildo? How can he tell if graffiti was written with a dildo?) Some of that older play’s naughtiness remains, but for the most part Hatcher honors the Jonson while focusing less on one’s johnson, if you follow me.
As in any good farce, the exposition takes less than half a page. In plague-stricken London, the houses are empty, the servants left behind. What’s a butler to do with all that … space? A conniving servant named Face (Manoel Felciano), the grifter Subtle (Reg Rogers), and lady-of-easy-virtue Dol (Jennifer Sánchez) form a “venture tripartite,” using their temporary access to Face’s master’s fancy townhouse to fleece as many folks as possible. They fashion a scheme specifically for each mark: Sometimes Subtle is an alchemist, tricking a nobleman, Mammon (Jacob Ming-Trent), into believing he can create the philosopher’s stone; other times he is a fortune teller promising to set a gullible gambler, Dapper (Carson Elrod), on the right track. In rapid succession, the three swindle an Anabaptist (Stephen DeRosa), a local merchant (Nathan Christopher), and a sexually voracious widow (Teresa Avia Lim). Everyone is venal, so everyone is prey, and eventually even the trio turn on one another — a hyenas’ feeding frenzy.
Director Jesse Berger keeps the pace as high as he can, swooping folks in and out of doors (set designer Alexis Distler puts these in surprising places), and in and out of various disguises. Rogers and Felciano frisbee robes and hats at each other across the stage, hustling in and out of characters that grow weirder as the show goes on. For all its sprinting, though, there are moments that do drag: Hatcher tries to solve the ickiness of Dol’s prostitute character but finds it difficult — he attempts various anachronistic solutions for her, including having her dress up as the golden lady from Goldfinger, but these sections never take flight. Instead, the production relies most on Rogers, who is happy to shoulder the burden. In any given instant, Rogers’s Subtle growls, prances, swoons, and recovers. Yet somehow he also hangs onto a kind of cat-in-midair dignity. Other characters can be funny, but it’s our alchemist’s comedy to win or lose: When Subtle leaves the stage, the show grows leaden, but the moment he’s back — eyes calculating, hair vertical, thoughts wheeling — the play turns again into gold.
It just so happens that I saw The Alchemist, a 400-year-old farce, on the same day that I went to the acerbic 2021 comedy Preparedness, a play set in the here and now. The two made strange theater fellows. They should have been wildly different: Hillary Miller’s darkly humorous play imagines a modern college campus worried about active shooters, seemingly a world away from plaguey, Puritan London. Yet it turned out that, seen in sequence, the shows were actually speaking to each other, making some of the same jokes. Certainly they draw the same wry conclusions.
At a faculty meeting gone horribly wrong, a cheery HR specialist Cath (Alison Cimmet) offers a “survival mentality” training seminar, her university-approved management-speak barely concealing its victim-blaming attitudes. Even without her jargon and veiled threats, though, things in the underfunded theater department have clearly gone wrong: The new hire (Tracy Hazas) can barely stand the dysfunction, while the experienced hand (Nora Cole) wishes the old collaborative days would return. Interpersonal and professional obsessions interrupt the acknowledgement of actual danger, and as the instructors bicker, Cath’s training gets more immersive, turning into something as traumatizing as an assault itself.
Miller knows how much rage is banked up inside the education system; she and director Kristjan Thor show us how that rage has broken the systems that are supposed to channel and contain it. Despite (or because of) their backgrounds, the theater teachers miss the point over and over, wondering “Is this catharsis?” as they stumble into what might be real gunfire. The play only loses its savage velocity when it splits off into two- or three-person scenes, where the arguments seem, for some reason, less carefully observed.
Still, Preparedness is clever, angry work, and it’s a fascinating companion piece to The Alchemist. (HR is the new panacea.) Miller is satirizing an artsy-fartsy theater department; Jonson mocks the woo-woo junk science of another age. Miller demonstrates how our save-yourself culture mishandles risk; Jonson shows us how people who will sell you help are on the make. But down in their bones, these comedies feel the same way about bogus authority, about self-deception, and about dishonesty disguised as aid. I started the day believing that I was going to spend it laughing, and I did laugh — merrily at The Alchemist, bitterly at Preparedness. But I also spent it sobering up. Laughter can do a lot for you, but at its best, it clears your head.
The Alchemist is at New World Stages through December 19.
Preparedness is at HERE Arts Center through December 11.
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