McGill’s English department’s production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is decadent in the best ways. At its premier Thursday night, audacious acting, gem-like lighting and set, and sumptuous costumes resurrected Jonson’s 400 year-old comedy with swagger. Jonson’s comic masterpiece, as it’s often called, follows conniving servant Jeremy – also called Captain Face – a fellow conman named Subtle, and a harlot named Doll, as they bamboozle the greedy and gullible with a promise of the philosopher’s stone that has the ability to turn all metals to gold. Needless to say, the script is both witty and lewd in the way that only old works can be, but more importantly, the cast is equal to it. Not only do you have Jonson’s thousand old-fangled dirty jokes, but also the trilled Rs to faithfully pronounce them. Under the direction of professor Sean Carney there are potions thrown against the wall, or drunk and spat out, characters that kiss, grope, or fight each other, that trip and faint, or hang from the rafters. There’s even an explosion.
It’s lucky for the actors and fortunate for the audience that The Alchemist is composed of small cons, for each is an occasion for new antics and effects. In this way, we have an excellent and indefatigable Chirag Naik playing Captain Face the solicitous gentleman, as well as a panting Quasimodo-esque assistant, and Jeremy the allegedly guileless servant. Not only are Naik’s characters well-articulated, but he wildly contorts his body and voice to match them while still giving sense to the script. Mike Ruderman plays Subtle – a hardworking conman who acts a spiritual medium – as well as a booming alchemical priest. As it happens, Ruderman himself profitably channels a Robin Williams genie-type. Katie Scharf plays the saucy courtesan Doll, who acts as an insane noblewoman, and fairy-queen. Together, the devious trio relieves a naive gambler of his purse, a tobacconist of his wares, a lord and a religious sect of their gold, and a rich widow of her inhibitions. All round, the production was very energetic to say the least.
In point of fact, the actors even overfilled the cup. Just the slightest hint of realism would have elevated the comic antics all the more by contrast. In any case, nun-groping, kissing and butt-kissing, stage-fighting, and penis jokes shine forth emphatically. The production owes no small part of its shine and shimmer to its excellent stage-, lighting-, and costume-design. At the back of the stage hangs a beautifully illuminated screen, or projection, on which shimmers an abstract and smoky play of light. This, together with a triplet of cathedral-like windowpanes that overhang the middle of the stage, creates a real sense of depth that Carney both uses and furthers to full advantage. In these environs, expert lighting design heightens the drama, as amazing period-inspired costumes lend both gravity and levity to the production.
Now comes time to ask, what broader meaning can The Alchemist offer? What oblique correspondences persist between the world of The Alchemist and our own? Nothing too specific, I’m afraid. The world of Elizabethan London that The Alchemist rarifies into gold has, in fact disappeared from almost everywhere except plays, though certain human things do remain. There was plague then as there’s sickness now. Greed then, as there is now. Treachery then, as now. Fanatical belief then, and perhaps more now. But, most importantly, there was humour then the same as there is now, and in the face of those other persisting evils, humour is what’s wanted, and The Alchemist satisfies. It’s funny.
The Alchemist runs at Moyse Hall Theatre until April 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $5 for students, call 514-398-6070 to book.