Theatre review: The Alchemist is a challenging piece

If any play could benefit from a detailed synopsis it would be the Ensemble Theatre Co-operative’s production of The Alchemist.

The AlchemistWritten in the early 17th century, British playwright Ben Jonson‘s comedy has such a density to it that without a guide to help audiences understand, the effect is both mesmerizing and perplexing.  Unlike Shakespeare where most audiences will likely have a passing knowledge of plot, Jonson’s work is so rarely performed that it does not come with that built-in understanding and makes for the biggest obstacle in being able to fully access this production.

The story revolves around a small group of swindlers who concoct a number of elaborate schemes to separate their various marks from their money and possessions.   As the trio attempt to juggle the comings and goings of their increasingly complex schemes, the play reaches its climax as one of the three outwits the others to walk away with the spoils.

A theatrical mash-up of sorts, director Tariq Leslie has combined the old English of Jonson’s text with set and costumes from Victorian England through modern-day.  He also mixes up the various accents of his cast that includes everything from Eliza Doolittle to a southern preacher.  Creating a very anachronistic effect, surprisingly it works, especially during those times when Jonson is at his wordiest and you are looking for some relief.

Despite the inaccessibility of Jonson’s play at times, it is evident that Leslie’s cast is up to its challenges and while that doesn’t necessarily help the audience, it does make it much more enjoyable.  Doing double-duty, Leslie himself plays part of the trio of con artists, easily moving between the various personas he must create.  As the other members of the threesome, Trevor Devall is delightfully wacky as Subtle and while Joey Bothwell makes for a believable and sexy Dol Common, her accent does make it even more difficult to access the language.

Of the trios numerous marks, Aaron Turner is hilarious as Drugger, giving a west coast laid back attitude that will have the potheads in the audience nodding in appreciation.  Matthew Bissett gives a tremendous performance as Sir Epicure Mammon and is paired nicely with Troy Anthony Young who plays his sidekick Surly, the only one to suspect they are all being played.

The decision to perform in the same play he directs does come back to haunt director Leslie at times with some blocking issues.  More importantly though, as not everyone is able to always wrap their tongues around Jonson’s words, it may have been entirely different outcome if he had given full focus to his actors.

Kyla Gardiner’ s set design provides some nice levels but I swear I’ll be glad to see the back end of the red velvet settee that seems to make an appearance at nearly every show at the Jericho Arts Centre.  Kenda Ward’s costumes are varied and as eclectic as the rest of the atmosphere.

The Alchemist is not for the casual theatre-goer, but if you like a challenge and want to see some fine acting it makes for a nice respite from Vancouver’s usual summertime theatrical fare; advance reading highly recommended.  If you’re not up to the challenge of Jonson’s con artists though, Meredith Willson’s more approachable conman is appearing at Malkin Bowl.

3 Out of 5 Stars The Alchemist

By Ben Jonson.  Directed by Tariq Leslie.  An Ensemble Theatre Co-operative production.  On stage at the Jericho Arts Centre through August 28, 2012.  Tickets are available online at Tickets Tonight.

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