- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

You want to emerge from a comedy feeling lighter, like your burden has been lifted temporarily. However, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “The Alchemist” weighs you down with the resentment of losing 2½ hours you’ll never get back again.

When director Michael Kahn is firing on all cylinders, he’s unbeatable. Witness the virtuoso froth of his stagings of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” and “The Silent Woman.”

With Ben Jonson’s 1610 play about greed and pretension, however, Mr. Kahn produces an evening of limp satire.

In this year when we’re still smarting from Bernard Madoff’s billion-dollar Ponzi scheme and the dark work of other latter-day flim-flam men, you would think “The Alchemist’s” story about con artists and get-rich-quick rip-offs couldn’t be timelier.

Mr. Kahn even sets the play in modern times, and any flicker of amusement is derived from Murrell Horton’s costumes — which feature tributes to Donald Trump’s fat-cat suits and dipsy-doodle comb-over, a gold lame number that’s vintage Elvis, a pink ball gown reminiscent of Glinda the Good Witch, and corsets that would be favored by Hugh Hefner’s “Girls Next Door.”

The show even resembles a vaudevillian runway show, as endless costumes sashay across the stage. Most of the get-ups are sported by a trio of cons — Subtle (David Manis), Face (Michael Milligan) and Dol Common (Kate Skinner — who assume a variety of personas to fleece their victims.

Face normally is a butler, but while his master, Lovewit (Wynn Harmon), is away, the help will prey. With a little help from Subtle (playing a host of mad scientists and mystics) and the prostitute Dol, Face seeks to amass a fortune hastily.

Rather than laughing at folly, you actually feel sorry for the duped, and this might be because the actions of the schemers are so blatantly venal and charmless. People are not being fooled into wisdom, in the tradition of history’s finest tricksters. They’re just being robbed and humiliated.

The purported frivolity of “The Alchemist” is not enhanced by victims who are stereotypes: the Jewish lawyer, the dumb stoner, the pervy old goat, the avaricious Southern preacher and the blond bimbo. David Sabin adds a touch of savvy humor to the role of lustful codger Sir Epicure Mammon, but the Viagra jokes and crude sexual thrusts become distasteful after a point.

An alchemist has the ability to turn cheap metal into gold. This production never transforms itself into anything else but the basest of elements.

WHAT: “The Alchemist,” by Ben Jonson
WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 22.
TICKETS: $10 to $87
PHONE: 202/547-1122
WEB SITE: www.ShakespeareTheatre.org

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