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Wednesday, Mar 8 2000
The most representative character in Ben Jonson's satire on greed is Sir Epicure Mammon, the lip-smacking, self-deluded fop. Actor Ken Ruta fills every molecule of Epicure with dripping, sensual hunger, and he's the best reason to see this show. In long gray hair, papery skin, a sparkling dandy jacket, and what looks like a fine tablecloth for pants, Epicure describes elaborate fantasies of succubae, dolphin-milk butter, and "oiléd mushrooms." His lusts have convinced him a sly commoner in a London mansion can make him rich by brewing some gold in a laboratory. But the alchemist is just a butler, a scam artist using his boss' empty mansion to separate a few suckers from their cash.

Ruta's character is an example of everything Tony Taccone and the Berkeley Rep have done right with The Alchemist. They've filled in all the colors of Jonson's farce and created a queasy, up-to-date portrait of greed. What they haven't done (in spite of Joan Holden's adaptation) is make the play a scathing sendup of capitalism. More on that in a minute.

The Alchemist plays out in an ash-colored town house owned by Mr. Lovewit, who goes away and leaves his butler, Face, with the keys. Face hatches a number of scams with two friends, Surly and Dol Common. In a series of disguises -- the Cunning Man, the Faerie Queene, the Alchemist's Assistant -- they trick a motley handful of Londoners into believing certain supernatural powers can transform their lives. A fat gambler named Dapper believes the Faerie Queene will change his luck; a Drugger asks for feng shui-style help in transforming his pharmacy; and two Puritans, Makepeace and Tribulation, believe the Cunning Man's alchemy will improve England's morals.

The pace of the show is both frenetic and sluggish, because it calls for quick costume changes and a sense of nervous confusion swirling around Jonson's dense Elizabethan language. Taccone's direction (and Holden's edits) keep things moving pretty well. Geoff Hoyle uses his clown training to enliven Face, who's multifaceted, as he changes from casual rag-coated con artist to harried and wheezing alchemist's assistant to polite silk-coated butler and so on. And Sharon Lockwood switches gender to play a nicely unsubtle Subtle, wearing the Cunning Man's robes and pretending to bark abstruse orders at his assistant, Face (really his boss).

David Paul Francis looks like Tweedledum in his fat Dapper costume, and he's a credulous fool right up to the moment Face and Subtle dump him down a hole in the stage. Gerald Hiken is a meek, whining, credulous Drugger -- exactly right -- and Jack Powell, as Tribulation, wears a tall hat, heavy white chops, a deep frown, and a long formal coat. (He looks like trouble.) Audrey Ann Smith, as Dol Common, seems to lapse out of farcical tune now and then, but she recovers in a religion-crazed post-coital scene that terrifies Sir Epicure. Playing straight man to all this madness is like swimming upstream, and Robert Sincular, as the skeptical Surly, can't do it -- he improves only under the pink and pompadoured disguise of Don Diego.

For some reason, though, The Alchemist isn't as funny as it sounds. Jonson's humor survives as wit, not hilarity; I sat there amused for two hours but hardly laughed. Everyman Theater Company did this play at the Exit last December, and I didn't laugh there, either. That able production wasn't as well-paced as the current one, but it did Jonson the credit of focusing on alchemy -- the idea of change -- as its theme, instead of capitalism. Jonson aims his satire at the blind urge for spurious change that moves people like lemmings. He also aims it at the shysters, official and unofficial, who skin the hides from the lemmings; but the argument that Jonson was an early anti-capitalist, made in the program notes, is only a marvelous witticism.

U.S. capitalism is almost feudal, canted in favor of the strong, and the king-controlled market in Jonson's day was even worse. But that doesn't mean the idea of a free market is corrupt. Any theater that attacks this idea with a broad brush risks contradicting itself, and that's just what the Berkeley Rep does, on the same page as the program's straight-from-today's-headlines examples of Jonson's relevance. The page is titled "Who Wants to Be a Gazillionaire?" and below the cartoons and news clips are ads for a high-toned Berkeley restaurant and a $600,000 home in Montclair. Jokes? No. Sponsorships!

Still, The Alchemist is timely. Silicon Valley attracts gold-chasers to California the way Hollywood once attracted whores. And Ben Jonson knows what both want, even without having met them.


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