Ben Jonson's

THE ALCHEMIST

Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher

Monday, June 24, 2019

7:30 PM
Lucille Lortel Theatre
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher
Directed by Jesse Berger
Featuring Duane Boutte, Tom Riis Farrell, Christopher Fitzgerald, Glenn Fleshler, John Glover, Tracie Lane, Teresa Avia Lim, Euan Morton, Alice Ripley, Noah Robbins, Steve Rosen, and Spiff Wiegand 
Music Direction by Greg Pliska

The greed and absurdity of Jonson’s Jacobean London have never shone more brilliantly than in this brand new adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, whose version of inane corruption à la Gogol delighted Red Bull audiences in The Government Inspector. Claiming alchemical powers, quick-witted con men Face and Subtle, together with the brilliantly sexy prostitute Dol Common, scam a series of chumps that they lure to the respectable Blackfriars house where they’ve set up shop. Jonson’s legendary satire spared no one, and Hatcher ensures today’s audience doesn’t miss a beat, in this side-splitting update of classic comedy at its best.

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FROM JEFFREY HATCHER

Samuel Coleridge wrote that Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist was one of the “three most perfect plots ever planned.” *  The not so subtle message to the writer adapting Jonson’s play being: “Don’t screw up the plot.”  So when Jesse Berger asked me to adapt The Alchemist for Red Bull, I figured I would focus on the language.  Jonson’s plot, his arrangement of actions, exposition, and expectations is, as Coleridge said, a perfect, densely packed machine and a joy to watch unwind.  But his language can be daunting. He’s very funny, but he’s funniest to those who know what Jonson knew. His erudition, his references and Jacobean era in-jokes can be lost on us if we haven’t done our homework.  I stubbed my toe on more than one of Jonson’s Latin-based witticisms and double entendres that combine a sexual joke with the name of one of Jonson’s colleagues (read: rival). There’s nothing more deadening than a joke that requires the audience to read a footnote that explains why it’s funny.  Purists will call this a free adaptation, but any inventions of my own, even the anachronistic ones, are intended to be in Jonson’s style and spirit, if not his meter. 

 

Of course I did end up screwing around with the plot.  I know: that way madness lies. But ours is a slimmed down version of the play, with fewer characters, one setting instead of three – or four, depending on how you view the original.  In making it more compact, I couldn’t help changing some of Jonson’s perfectly planned plot. To those in the know, this will be evident in the role of Dol. Dol has more to do in this adaptation than she does in the original.  Jonson’s Dol Common is a great character, but Jesse and I thought she got tossed about a bit, so she’s been given more, what’s the word, agency.  Ditto Dame Pliant.  Dol and Dame Pliant are the only women in this adaptation.  That’s two women against eight men. We’ve tried to make it more of a fair fight.  

 

So, apart from dumbing down the jokes, ruining the perfect plot, inventing anachronistic things for the women to do that they never did before, and adding a song first sung by Shirley Bassey, the play is pretty much your grandmother’s The Alchemist.  If your grandmother was Shirley Bassey.

 

JEFFREY HATCHER

 

*The other two perfect plots were Oedipus and Tom Jones, both of which I plan to screw up next.

ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHTS

Jeffrey Hatcher’s Broadway credits include Never Gonna Dance (book). Off-Broadway credits include Three Viewings and A Picasso at Manhattan Theatre Club; Scotland Road and The Turn of the Screw at Primary Stages; Tuesdays with Morrie (with Mitch Albom) at the Minetta Lane; Murder by Poe, The Turn of the Screw, and The Spy at The Acting Company; and Neddy at American Place. Other credits include Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Mrs. Mannerly, Murderers, Mercy of a Storm, Smash, Korczak's Children, To Fool the Eye, Confederacy of Dunces, The Critic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and others at The Guthrie, Old Globe, Yale Rep, The Geffen, Seattle Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Cleveland Playhouse, South Coast Rep, Arizona Theater Company, San Jose Rep, The Empty Space, Indiana Rep, Children’s Theater Company, History Theater, Madison Rep, Intiman, Illusion, Denver Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Milwaukee Rep, Repertory Theater of St. Louis, Actors Theater of Louisville, Philadelphia Theater Company, Huntington, Shakespeare Theatre (D.C.), Asolo, City Theater, Studio Arena and dozens more in the U.S. and abroad. Film and television credits include Stage Beauty, Casanova, The Duchess, Mr. Holmes, and episodes of “Columbo” and "The Mentalist." Grants/awards: NEA, TCG, Lila Wallace Fund, Rosenthal New Play Prize, Frankel Award, Charles MacArthur Fellowship Award, McKnight Foundation, Jerome Foundation, Barrymore Award Best New Play, and IVEY Award Best New Play. He is a member and/or alumnus of The Playwrights Center, the Dramatists Guild, the Writers Guild, and New Dramatists.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was an early modern poet, playwright, and actor best remembered now for his lyric verse and the remarkable comedies of London life that he wrote in the ten years following 1605. These include Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair (1614), and Eastward Ho (1605), co-written with John Marston and George Chapman.  The son of a clergyman who died before he was born, Jonson was apprenticed by his step-father to a bricklayer before he ran off to Flanders to join the English army there. Though lacking a university education, Jonson prided himself on his erudition. During the reign of James I (1603-1625), Jonson wrote many elaborate masques and entertainments for the court and wrote poetry often dedicated to court figures. In 1616 he produced an elaborate folio version of his Works, which was seen by some as an act of hubris since such imposing volumes were often reserved for classical authors and not for living playwrights. Shakespeare’s company brought out a more modest folio version of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, seven years after his death. Jonson died in poverty after his later works lost favor both with theater audiences and with the new King, Charles I.

ABOUT BEN JONSON'S THE ALCHEMIST

The Alchemist is a play about a plot. Three rogues, Face, Subtle, and Doll Common, plot to siphon money from a series of gulls by telling each of them that Subtle, who pretends to be an alchemist and a wise and holy man, can provide each of them with a means to grow rich.  Some of the gulls have very simple ambitions. Drugger, a tradesman who sells tobacco, wants Subtle to help him design a sign and lay out his shop in a way that will attract customers.  Sir Epicure Mammon, a knight and a voluptuary, wants nothing less than the philosopher’s stone, a product of alchemical labor popularly believed to allow base metals to be turned into gold. For its more serious practitioners, alchemy was a philosophical pursuit of the secrets of the natural world to be undertaken only by the virtuous. In The Alchemist, Jonson delights in showing what happens when con men get into the alchemical racket and, with no claims to real learning or virtue, turn alchemy into a game of smoke, mirrors, and bombast. 

 

What makes the play spin is how this simple gulling plot is compressed into a single day and a single place (the London home of Face’s master, Lovewit). In the tradition of great farce, one gull is no sooner out the door than another one arrives—and sometimes two appear at once, causing a crisis for the plotters who must create elaborate scenarios to take in each gull. Sometimes Doll plays the Queen of the Fairies, for example, and sometimes a learned lady.  Sometimes Subtle must pretend to be stoking the fires to produce the philosopher’s stone and sometimes he is supposed to be conjuring up a familiar or simple spirit who will help a clerk, young Dapper, win money at the races.  The plot depends on quick costume changes and split second timing as the plotters stoke the gulls’ imaginations with visions of wealth and wives that lie just around the corner—if only the gulls can come up with a little more cash.  

 

These three rogues carry out their plot in Lovewit’s house because Lovewit has fled the city to escape the plague, leaving his home in the care of his servant, Jeremy (known for four acts as Face). Jonson thus turns London during the plague into a kind of Carnival world-upside-down where servants rule the roost when their social superiors have fled and where the forces of appetite and lawless desire run amuck. Like most of Jonson’s comedies, The Alchemist satirizes the vices of the time, especially the desire for wealth at any cost.  But Jonson also makes fun of the lustful, the gluttonous, and the hypocritical. Two of the most memorable characters in The Alchemist are Tribulation and Ananias, examples of the period’s more severe and self-righteous Protestant sectarians who in this instance rail against the vices of others while embezzling the property of widows and orphans in order to get Subtle to deliver to them the philosopher’s stone.

 

One of the most striking features of this play is its language. The play abounds in lists: lists of things the gulls want to eat, drink, wear and buy once great riches are theirs; lists of materials that Subtle and Face must acquire to perfect the philosopher’s stone; lists of the many stages through which the alchemical transactions must pass. Jonson uses these lists both to show the outrageousness of desires that know no limits and to reveal the way jargon can be part of a great con game to entrap the unwary or the naïve. He is a great connoisseur of language and a great plotter: The Alchemist, observing the unities of time, place, and action, is a tour de force of dramatic skill. Whether he meant to or not, Jonson shows quite clearly how a good dramatist resembles a good con man, no matter how much their moral purposes may differ.

Our OBIE Award-winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York. 

 

Casting subject to change.

 

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