Stage review: Whirligig plot drives fun-filled 'Alchemists' Lab'

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The "three most perfect plots ever planned" -- that's what Coleridge called Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex," Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones" and Ben Jonson's "The Alchemist."

OK, maybe the ancient mariner was smoking some of his Xanadu-brand opium when he said it. But as far as Jonson's 1610 comedy is concerned, there's solid support in "The Alchemists' Lab," Gab Cody's wild "devised" adaptation, now having its frantic, fun-filled premiere at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

This is what's meant by a comic romp, in which an appealing, enthusiastic ensemble of 23 Point Park theater students stops at just about nothing (cover your prudish ears) to whip up a farcical froth as it translates "The Alchemist" into something like the present day.

Jonson's story is about a trio of con artists who take over an empty house and in less than one day fleece an ever-growing gang of greedy boobies with the promise of the "philosopher's stone," which will turn anything to gold and make them rich beyond even their considerable dreams of avarice.

As the trio's foolish victims proliferate, the different plots begin to spiral out of control. The victims start bumping into each other and the con artistry is sorely taxed, until suddenly the master of the house shows up -- in this case, the actual chair of the Point Park theater department, who says she is shocked, shocked to see such goings-on.

They could also have Dean Ron Lindblom play the part, or the Point Park president, Mayor-elect Bill Peduto, or even a theater critic. The audience has been going dizzy trying to keep up, so it's good to have an authority step in and bring the 100 or so pell-mell minutes to a foot-stomping end.

You can call the humor undergraduate or even sophomoric, as long as you remember your own inner sophomore. There's abundant punning and bedazzling speechifying, such as conmen use. Various formats provide structure -- a game show, for example. The performers have been polishing their clowning and other physical skills. And there's tap dancing -- why not? A trio provides musical punctuation. The stage features ladders, farce's inevitable doors and even a Jacobean inner stage. And enchanted fireflies!

The avaricious right-wing Christians are based on Jonson's greedy Puritans -- the same guys who would end up in Plymouth just 10 years later. Jonson's gourmandizing knight becomes a babe-hungry jock, and his Abel Drugger (the role that David Garrick played in the 18th century and Alec Guinness in the 20th) becomes a hippy stoner.

But forget Jonson, you don't need any background -- it all works fine in slapdash modern terms. I particularly liked the sappy cheerleaders and the black duo in drag, whom Jonson might have included if he could have even imagined them.

Out of this big, feverish ensemble I'll cite only the con artist trio: Drew Palajsa (Face), Conner Gillooly (Subtle) and Meleana Felton (mistress of seduction and martial arts).

And of course Reed Worth (braggart jock).

Technically, "The Alchemist" (singular) of Jonson's title is Subtle. But "Alchemists' Lab" is quite correctly plural, recognizing the collaborative effort of creation and performance. Still, you can't imagine it without a comedic maestro like Gab Cody at the helm, stealing not so much Jonson's caricature characters and overstuffed language as just what Coleridge praised, that whirligig plot.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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