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Stephen Ouimette as Subtle, left, Brigit Wilson as Dol Common, centre, and Jonathan Goad as Face in The Alchemist.

David Hou

3 out of 4 stars

Written by
Ben Jonson
Directed by
Antoni Cimolino
Actors
Stephen Ouimette, Jonathan Goad, Brigit Wilson
Venue
Stratford Festival
City
Stratford, Ont.
Runs Until
Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Three cheers for the Surlys of the world – the men and women who dedicate themselves to exposing con men and protecting the credulous in a world where they are outnumbered on both sides.

Surly, played with seething self-righteousness by Wayne Best in the Stratford Festival's zany new production of The Alchemist, is the only person who sees through the tricks and quackery of Face (Jonathan Goad), Subtle (Stephen Ouimette) and Dol Common (Brigit Wilson).

That trio of con people at the centre of Ben Jonson's 1610 comedy have set up shop in a plague-vacated house to part fools from their money – and have found no short supply of greedy gulls in London.

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Donning a series of disguises that transform them into mystics and captains, Face, Subtle and Dol sell good-luck charms to lawyers, offer feng shui consultations to small businessmen and promise the Philosopher's Stone to both a pair of anal-retentive Anabaptists and a wealthy sack of guts known as Epicure Mammon.

When not outwitting the witless, however, they argue among themselves over the spoils – and that may be their ultimate undoing.

As Subtle, the great actor Ouimette can't exactly be said to live up to his character's name, given that he begins the show having a bowel movement onstage and then chases his co-stars up and down the long Tom Patterson Theatre stage with a bucket full of excrement (disgustingly designed by Carolyn M. Smith).

But Ouimette and a gleefully greasy Goad make for a fine double act of duplicity in director Antoni Cimolino's fast-paced, quick-change production; they are actors playing actors who use their skills for evil rather than good.

As for Dol, Wilson turns her more into a dominatrix than a prostitute – and, though she has less stage time than her male counterparts, she makes the most of it, whipping Subtle and Face and a series of their suckers into shape. (Indeed, Cimolino has boosted a couple of the play's female characters.)

Jonson's play can get a little tiresome with its parade of patsies; there's little depth to the characters and the structure is repetitive. But there are many enjoyable performances to be found: Scott Wentworth is a gas in an over-the-top fat suit as Epicure, truly disgusting as he describes the feast he will buy with all the tin he plans to turn into gold, while Jessica B. Hill and Jamie Mac bring freshness to their portrayals of a rich, young widow and her yokel brother.

For my money, however, the best performance of the night comes from Best as Surly – making you guffaw, not just grin. His is the only character you might remotely root for, but he is rendered entirely ridiculous because of his smug sense of superiority – communicated through extravagant eye rolls at the audience. In the second half, he appears disguised as a Spaniard in an attempt to con the con men – and his costume and accent are so absurd that co-star Goad got the giggles on opening night. That made the moment that much funnier, however.

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In Jonson's comedy, full of scatological humour and asides to the audience, there is room for looseness – and, indeed, a few more moments that were less tightly wound would have been welcome.

Watching The Alchemist, I was reminded of Anne Washburn's brilliant 2013 play Mr. Burns, which imagines a post-electric future in which actors perform episodes of The Simpsons live onstage as high art.

It's certainly a strange twist of fate that Jonson's plays – nasty, unsentimental and gross-out satires, more South Park than The Simpsons – have become revered texts to be performed at prestigious theatre companies. One of this play's first lines is, after all: "I fart at thee!"

But seeing The Alchemist just a few months after Ontario became the first province to regulate quackery by passing the Homeopathy Act, at a time when ill-informed parents across the continent are once again passing on vaccinations, Jonson's 17th-century sensibility hardly felt irrelevant.

Good does not triumph over evil in Jonson's world – and Surly does not get the best of the alchemists. Instead, in Best's brilliant performance, he seems the craziest of all, trying to maintain his sanity in an insane world. You feel his pain as you laugh at him.

The Alchemist continues to Oct. 13.

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