Theater archives

O! Battling Elizabethans! O!


Poor Ben Jonson, sentenced to live for eternity in Shakespeare’s shadow, is not without his share of A-list fans. T.S. Eliot, who had rivalry issues of his own with the Bard, thought Jonson to be the most appealingly modern of the Elizabethan dramatists, if only the modern age would bother to get to know him. This requires some exertion. The first experience of Jonson’s rarefied vocabulary and obscure allusions can give the feeling of sifting through an archaeological dig. But there are vintage comic rewards to be had through the patient study of Volpone, Epicoene, and most deliciously Bartholomew Fair—hard as it is to imagine anyone switching off their Will and Grace for a poke into the Norton Anthology.

Brave Barry Edelstein, the artistic director of Classic Stage Company, has provided a rare opportunity for New York audiences to catch one of Jonson’s zanier masterpieces, The Alchemist, a comedy whose Classic Roman style has been praised by Coleridge and even Edmund Wilson (who once wrote a rebuttal to Eliot entitled “Morose Ben Jonson”). The play gleefully tracks the machinations of a trio of con artists, who fleece a diverse bunch of shlubs with the promise of turning base metal into gold.

Set in a musty basement partly converted to look like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, the Marx Brothers-esque high jinks are orchestrated by Face (Jeremy Shamos), who has invited the fraudulent sorcerer Subtle (Dan Castellaneta) and the prostitute Dol (Johann Carlo) to set up shop in his master’s empty house. Though the three can barely stomach the sight of each other, they know they can dupe more effectively as a conglomerate. Success seems assured given the city’s abundance of gullible greed, though Jonson’s sneaking sympathy for his schemers doesn’t eclipse his awareness of the flagrant dishonor among thieves.

Though the plot has a repetitive simplicity, the language, rife with the pseudoscientific jargon of alchemy, is arcane in the extreme. The challenge isn’t so much how to make the play new (the work’s satiric targets live on) but how to keep it accessible while still complexly entertaining. This is where Edelstein’s production falls short. No one should have a problem understanding his user-friendly adaptation (arrived at through draconian cuts and tight-meshed verbal skimming); just don’t expect too much hilarity from the staging.

That Edelstein sets the action in a fictive present matters hardly at all, as Jonson’s London is basically a theatrical caricature. Of real damage, however, is the lack of emotional urgency fueling the characters’ mercenary antics. The playwright may have dealt primarily in stock comic types, but he was enough of an artist to know that the more recognizably human the folly, the funnier it will be.

Edelstein’s game cast performs with unflagging energy, though their shenanigans often seem forced and mechanical, as though enacted by marionettes on speed. Castellaneta, the TV voice of Homer Simpson, has the natural bluff of a wizard, though he works his squirrelly charm too strenuously for laughs. While more understated in his delivery, Shamos lends Face’s improvisational genius little distinctive color. Lee Sellars provides at least a cartoonish hint of why the novelist Charles Dickens longed to play the role of Sir Epicure Mammon. Absurdly dressed to resemble Humpty-Dumpty in black-tie, Sellars incarnates the insatiable appetite that Jonson knew wouldn’t be satisfied until the day gold could not only be alchemized, but copulated into existence.

The National Asian American Theatre Company’s subdued Othello proves there are no cultural obstacles when it comes to appreciating the work of that other (what’s his name again?) Elizabethan playwright. Straightforwardly directed by Jonathan Bank, the production features the Filipino actor Joshua Spafford as the Jealous Moor goaded into murder by Joel de la Fuente’s Iago, a street-smart scoundrel who’s an expert at playing the race card. Given the link between Othello’s outsider status as a black man and the nontraditional all-Asian cast, one could have wished for a more adventurous approach to the text, but as far as shoestring Shakespeares go, it’s a clean and commendable effort.

A gilt portico is all that establishes the Venetian court, where Othello movingly relates how he wooed Desdemona (Tina Horii) with the story of his life. The couple’s love nest at Cyprus is cordoned off with white sheets—a simple yet vivid way of demarcating the site of destroyed innocence. The spare staging keeps things moving at a nice clip. The only design problem is with the costumes, which seem a tawdry parody of Renaissance fashion.

Spafford has a resonant voice, though his delivery becomes mannered in moments of intensity. The sharpness of de la Fuente’s villainous portrait is marred only slightly by his rapid, unmetrical speech. Horii’s Desdemona is too much the childlike doll, though she arrives at a sweet pathos in the final act—a scene, if ever there was one, to distinguish Shakespeare from his admirable contemporaries.