The Red Bull Theater, founded two decades ago in Manhattan, specializes in neglected plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, dusted off con brio. During the lockdown phase of the pandemic, the company kept busy with Zoom readings of esoterica like Beaumont and Fletcher’s A King and No King, Ben Jonson’s grisly tragic shocker Sejanus, His Fall, and treasures from Spain’s contemporaneous Golden Age. Last fall, the troupe bounced back to the stage in rollicking form with Jonson’s satiric masterpiece The Alchemist. Filmed live, the show goes online this week through February 14.
The setup of The Alchemist is simple. A gentleman of means has fled London to escape the plague, leaving his townhouse in the care of his steward, who joins forces with two other con artists to scam fools of every stripe. The poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge regarded the clockwork plot—along with those of the Sophocles Oedipus Rex and Henry Fielding’s doorstop picaresque Tom Jones—as one of the three finest in world literature. Tucked in a paperback I’ve owned since my schooldays, I find Time magazine’s unsigned review of the play’s second and last Broadway run, which was over a half-century ago.
“[T]he play,” the clipping reads in part, “has the shapely precision of a ballet, wittily danced to the themes of vanity, greed, cunning, lust and fraud.… Ben Jonson is not simply Shakespeare writ small. Shakespeare is like the sea; he accepts and purifies all things. But Ben Jonson is like the tide: a cool comic moralist who spews upon the shoreline all the debris of vice-infected humanity.” Who files such notices today? Those were thoughts “not of an age,” as Jonson said of Shakespeare, “but for all time.”
The current revival, directed by Jesse Berger, showcases a rambunctious all-clown ensemble. Manoel Felciano leads the charge as the homeowner’s steward, in constantly shifting alliance with Reg Rogers as the magus who turns lead to gold (not) and Jennifer Sánchez as catnip for the erotically susceptible. Among the clientele, Carson Elrod steals his scenes as a tetchy gambler, as do Stephen DeRosa as a preening religious fanatic and the sweet-faced Nathan Christopher as a tobacconist who was born yesterday. Late in the game, Teresa Ava Lim swoops in to clean up, blowing hot and cold as a femme fatale who is not what she seems.
Textual scholars, take note: Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation rides roughshod over Jonson’s learned, precise, and witty language. That said, The New York Times and Vulture gave The Alchemist their hearty thumbs-ups, seconded by a 4-star Critic’s Pick in Time Out. Now more than ever, laughter is the best medicine.
This just in …
On Monday, January 31, Red Bull’s series of online readings continues with John Marston’s sensational erotic thriller The Wonder of Women, or The Tragedy of Sophonisba, first performed by the Children of the Revels, a troupe of boy actors. Hello? (Details on the Red Bull Web site.)
The Alchemist will stream on the Red Bull Theater Web site from February 1 through February 14
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii