The Baron’s Men production of Jonson’s Alchemist proves palpabale to modern audiences despite period conventions and length

image The Barons Men delivered once and again something worth talking about. The Austin-based troupe, which specializes in Elizabethan-era theater performed in period costumes with period minimal sets and in an historic setting, Garriott’s Curtain Theatre, is in their tenth year of production. A close-knit and familial group well known for their Shakespearean works, notably recent productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry V, both of which earned B. Iden Payne nominations.


The Alchemist by Jonson was a daring choice for veteran director Casey Weed. The play is often not performed because it is seen as a hard sell to modern audiences because it contains a myriad of archaic references to Elizabethan England and pop culture around 1610. However, the play also contains highly archetypical characters and enough low-brow and slapstick humor to keep audiences entertained.


In this production, the director chose to emphasize over-the-top performance in order to drive home the characterization. This comes off affably well, as from the Prologue it is obvious that this play is not about to take itself too seriously. Traditional elements of period music-performed live for the audience is a rare treat. Dance, also important on the period stage is incorporated, and at times makes scenes hilarious, though at others came off as confusing to the audience despite tight performance and execution of choreography.


The show cast is relatively large but there are several high points in a play which proves somewhat unevenly written. The principals, Todd Kassens, Heath Thompson, and Bridget Farias prove palpable leads and execute their inordinate number of lines with perfection. High points amongst each include Kassens’ raw and mysterious physicality which is accented by several stunning, and riotous costumes which accentuate many random and esoteric references involved with the character of Subtle, the Alchemist. Thompson’s execution of the tripartite character Face, who is alternately Jeremy the Butler and Lungs the Alchemist’s Assitant is similarly well played. Thompson was given the challenge of being able to play three distinct characters, ever changing, and does a superb job in this respect reminiscent of his role of Thisbe in Midsummer’s Night Dream. The ubiquitous Bridget Farias, an Austin theater mainstay brings life to the character of Dol Common through the expected top-notch acting and is able to steal scenes by merely bocking like a chicken or cavorting about as the Queen of Fairy.


The cast is rounded out with a number of smaller characters, several of which also merit accolade. Joshua Moretto performs a character so foul of bodily functions that audience members wanted to avoid him after the show due to outstanding physicality throughout. Eva McQuade again shines, this time in drag, as angry boy Kastril. McQuade’s penchant for comedy is not entirely quenched with such a small role, but she adds meat to the bones of an otherwise meager role with acting talent. Ben McLamore, recently seen in Romeo and Juliet and as a director for Last Act Theater Company’s Titus Andronicus similarly lends heft to the small role of Dapper, exhibiting a deep understanding of physical comedy despite being banished to an offstage outhouse for over half of the play. Michael O’Keefe’s Sir Epicure Mammon comes off with such blatant hedonism that the character carries the weight of a Falstaff run rampant with lines juicer than “fat uncious ham, newly cutoff.” Additionally, theater newcomer Chris Casey plays a love-to-hate Anabaptist whose physical comedy puts Moe of the Three Stooges to mind. Casey’s imposing figure also snaps a few laughs as the butt of several chastisements.


Though the play is unwieldy, which translates to an elongated performance, and is a far cry from Shakespeare in its writings, there are also some overall low points. As previously stated, some of the dance numbers proved confusing to the audience. Similarly, several scenes fell somewhat flat; notably a particularly wordy scene involving a Spanish Don which needed more physical action to keep the scene apace. The play also seemed to lull after the initial act during the exposition phase. At times it felt that the play needed injections of audience vigor to keep up the comedy of certain scenes, and if the audience languished, performances deflated.


Overall, the play proved a comic treat, though not a quick one, and was well-executed. Costuming via Cherie Weed, well-known for her work with Hidden Room Theater’s original practice Taming of the Shrew was superb. Music was also well-performed and accentuated the performance at times. Several musicians even got cameos in the show itself, and Michael Mendoza stole not one but two scenes as a for-hire guitar which brought money to the stage from the audience. Though worth seeing for adults, the bawdy factor of this show makes it questionable for younger audiences. If you missed the show, The Baron’s Men recorded the show and will be releasing a DVD at the same price of a ticket and can be watched in your own home, which though a far cry from the Curtain, has seating more suited to an almost three hour run time.

Overall Review: ****


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