The Alchemist; American Shakespeare Center; Through April 2

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It takes a gifted writer to charm centuries of academics and audiences alike with what are essentially dung jokes aimed at con artists. That is why one might be timid to approach any production of Ben Jonson, who constructed ridiculously convoluted plots and wordplays while Shakespeare examined heartbreak and antithetical humanism: It can be loads of fun, or it can be a wooden lesson in another great playwright of Elizabethan England. 

 
Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center prides itself on dramaturgy, a freaky term that normally means “scholarship that ruins theatrical productions.” There is no hint of that in their production of Jonson’s The Alchemist, where the mechanicals have shaped the production in the spirit of the play’s content, and not into a period piece. Characters, one of which is a rootin’-tootin’ Texan, show up in Chuck Taylors and Daisy Dukes, and perform songs from “Flight of the Conchords.”
 
The story begins when Subtle the alchemist (John Harrell), and Face (Benjamin Curns), a butler, decide to use the empty house of Face’s housemaster to con their way into a quick buck. Enter Dol Common (Allison Glenzer), who uses her soothing breasts to charm the money out of fools. An early dupe is a meek tobacconist (played by an adorable and coy Miriam Donald), who asks that Subtle use necromancy to determine which way his shop door should face to invite the most business. During this exercise in feng shui, I could faintly hear Reginald Scot rolling his eyes from the great beyond. 
 
Soon, the house is full of potential pigeons. There’s Dapper (Denice Burbach), a gullible local clerk who proves that a swindle is afoot. With taped-up glasses and an argyle sweater, Dapper channels Mary Gross as Alfalfa and introduces us to the anachronisms that pepper the production. Next is Surly (Daniel Kennedy) and—oh my God—Epicure (Gregory Jon Phelps), a self-proclaimed poet and lover whose disproportionate girth and Nickelback hairdo are a comedic goldmine. Whatever corner of the universe begat Phelps’ Epicure should be explored further; he’s a mind-boggling creature. 
 
Blackfriars’ production could have easily become “ideas run amok,” but the whole damned thing somehow works, firing on all cylinders. The pacing is so tight, with actions suited to the words and words to the actions, that the prompter, who occasionally quacked lines from offstage, didn’t kill the flow a bit. There is not a single uncommitted performance and each actor goes for broke in all the right ways.
 
I am known as an easily distracted audience member and my attention never waned throughout the evening. By my own meter, that’s a true success.
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