Saturday, May 26, 2001

The Alchemist (Bad Epitaph)

'THE ALCHEMIST' self-destructs at Bad Epitaph

I have a self-imposed rule. I never leave a theatrical presentation before it’s over. If at all possible I try to follow that resolve. Several years ago I attended a nearly sold-out production of the musical 'ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.' After intermission I was the only reviewer and one of only a dozen viewers who remained.

I attended the opening night of Bad Epitaph Theatre’s 'THE ALCHEMIST.' I must publicly admit that I broke my cardinal rule...I left before the production was complete. I could no longer sit and listen to the incessant screaming, the high pitched wailing that after a while sounded like fingernails scratching on a blackboard, the misinterpretation of the script, the poor acting, the direction which intended to insight the audience to laugh at the antics rather than with the material. I left after two hours. There was still another act to go.

'THE ALCHEMIST' is a recognized theatrical classic. Written by Ben Jonson, who is considered, along with Shakespeare, the major writer of the early 1600s, he is most noted for his comedies which include 'VOLPONE, THE ALCHEMIST' and 'BARTHOLOMEW.' He uses comedy to highlight those who lie, cheat and steal from others. His language is fluid and, though dated by modern standards, evokes laughter. Well done productions of his works delight.

For some inexplicable reason director Lawrence Nehring decided that Jonson’s intent and writing was not enough. He decided to make the comedy into a farce. A farce with no restraint. Rather than let the words evoke audience reactions he added prat falls, exaggerated acting techniques, sexual innuendoes, confusing costuming, and lots of screaming and door slamming. The company’s publicity called this their third modern interpretation of a classic work. Modern interpretations can be fine. Great Lakes Theatre Festival, among others, has been successful in modernizing when they decide that a play has a contemporary message and by adjusting the setting, costumes and/or the language. The audience then gets the intent and purpose of the writing as it pertains to today. Why did Nehring modernize 'THE ALCHEMIST?' He made comedy into visual farce. Did any of this help the attender to get Jonson’s message? I think not.

The night wasn’t a total waste. There were some talented actors on stage who, with the right guidance, could have shown off their skills. Don McBride’s two-room set was beautiful and, in the real world, the Indians beat the Yankees!

After the first act many of the audience did not return. As I left after the second act, there was an additional parade down the stairs to the great out-of-doors. As one man said rather loudly to his wife on their exit, “I’ve had enough! This is bad theatre!” He echoed my thoughts.

Capsule judgement: Too bad, Bad Epitaph has done some marvelous theatre. Their 'CLOUD NINE' earlier this season was brilliant. Not so for 'THE ALCHEMIST.'