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October 14, 2009

Michael Kahn Does “The Alchemist!”

Roy Meachum

I’ve warned you about Michael Kahn before. The artistic director of Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company continues to make stage classics work by inserting shtickla the writer could not have imagined. He’s done it again in “The Alchemist,” by Ben Jonson.


For some two and a half hours, the opening night audience marveled – and roared – at the characters on stage; they each figured to score. They were trying to take advantage of one another, while the audience roars. In the end they are a sorrowful bunch of con-artists, deserving sympathy from no one – especially the people on the other side of the footlights. Ticket-holders saw all their tricks, understood their greedy ambitions and known how daft their crude machinations.


Mr. Jonson’s words are there but what was a collection of 16th century rascals and petty criminals – through Mr. Kahn’s artistry – emerged on the boards as an outrageous crew of petty thieves. Muriel Horton’s exceptional costumes help, and so do the illuminating set and restrained lighting, created by James Noone and Peter West.


As for the cast, line them up! Kate Skinner literally throws herself into Dol Common, a prostitute. Subtle is the moniker adorning David Maris who romps through elaborate costumes meant to disguise his true character: the alchemist who feeds all the greedy appetites on stage. And Michael Milligan, first seen as a cavalry officer wearing an Irish T-shirt, and later switching to the butler in charge of everything we see.


Nick Cordileone has a neat turn as a lawyer’s clerk and Jeff Biehl takes a few swirls around the plot as a young shopkeeper. Kyle Fabel has one of those deliciously named parts: Pertinax Surly is a cynic and out of step with everyone else. But then, he arrives on the scene with Sir Epicure Mammon, really yclept David Sabin; as he has on several occasions Mr. Sabin threatens to take over the stage. He’s the rich man who literally begs to be taken. As ever, he’s magnificent.


In Ben Jonson’s era, England had just broken away from the Church of Rome, so the company presents Timothy Thomas as Tribulation Wholesome, to all outward appearances a Catholic priest; although the piping on his cassock calls him a monsignor. Alex Morf plays a wealthy young man who, at the end, becomes bonkers. Accompanying him is his sister, a toothsome dish and a widow to boot; Rachel Holt’s blonde beauty sets off several subplots. Tying all the stories together arrives Wynn Harmon; the owner of the very handsome set (house) stays out of sight initially – fled away from the plague, we are told.


Since my lead gave the greatest credit to Michael Kahn, it was incumbent that I name each actor because each contributes. The director, I know, would have been lost without their particular talents.


The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new season is off to a laugh-roaring start. Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” made a perfect fit for opening this October.


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