STRATFORD — The Stratford Festival’s 63rd season opened with Antoni Cimolino directing Hamlet with a sure creative hand.
The 2015 season’s last production is The Alchemist, an acid comedy written by Ben Jonson — William Shakespeare’s friend, rival and sometime critic — also directed with a steady hand by the festival’s artistic director.
The two productions bookend a season that maintained an admirable level of achievement. I saw everything on the playbill, with the exception of the world premier of The Last Wife and Possible Worlds at the Studio Theatre, and I was disappointed by only one production — a curiously outdated version of the musical Carousel.
Since becoming artistic director three years ago, Cimolino has steered the theatrical ship off treacherous shoals into tranquil seas. The playbills and concomitant quality of productions have better represented the traditions and legacy of Canada’s premiere classical repertory company.
More specifically, the plays of Shakespeare have generally been presented with renewed vision and commitment, insight and enthusiasm, as reflected in the quartet of offerings this season including Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Adventures of Pericles and Love’s Labour’s Lost. There wasn’t a compromising link in the Shakespearean chain.
Although Cimolino makes no overt concession to our corrupt contemporary world, it’s impossible to view The Alchemist without seeing disgraced senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Mac Harb, Patrick Brazeau and their ilk attired in gaudy Jonsonian garb. Seems swindling and fleecing never go out of fashion — at least in politics where picking the public purse is a declaration of entitlement.
Jonson’s dark satiric charade takes place in the Blackfriars area of London in 1610 — to be precise. Lovewit, a London gentleman, has fled to the country to escape the plague, leaving his vacant house in the care of his housekeeper Jeremy who we come to know as Face.
Face is one in a trio of larcenous rascals including the con-artist Subtle and his female accomplice Dol Common, a prostitute with a dominatrix streak. Setting up shop in Lovewit’s house, the trio dupe a rogues gallery of unsuspecting scoundrels driven by a goodly number of the Seven Deadly Sins — greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, pride, wrath and envy.
There is something about playing rascals and scoundrels that brings out the best in talented actors. Jonathan Goad, Brigit Wilson and that comic treasure Stephen Ouimette gleefully make comedic hay as a greasy Face, a voluptuous Dol and a not-so-subtle Subtle.
Goad and Wilson are both a hoot. But this is the kind of role made for the comedic chameleon Ouimette, enabling him to throw caution to the wind and allow virtuosity to run wild. Like the alchemist referred to in the satire’s title, the veteran actor turns raw human baseness into brilliant comic gold.
With Goad, Wilson and Ouimette anchoring the production, little goes astray, especially when the supporting cast joins the fun with such unbridled enthusiasm.
Antoine Yared’s law clerk Dapper doesn’t let simple legalities get in the way of earning a fistful of dollars through gambling and other shady enterprises.
Steve Ross’ Drugger, ‘the mad tobacco boy,’ is a haplessly gullible knave who confuses need with greed.
Scott Wentworth is the insatiable lecher Sir Epicure Mammon. Resembling a gold-embossed cream-puff with a misfiring erection, he’s so deliciously grotesque as to give audience members a bad case of indigestion.
Wayne Best’s sneering, smug and skeptical Surly, not to mention his hilariously transparent disguise as a Spanish don, constitutes some of his best work in his 20 festival seasons.
The anally retentive bookkeeper Ananias (Rylan Wilkie) and the deacon Tribulation (Randy Hughson) confirm that religious fanaticism enjoys company.
Finally, Jamie Mac’s hotheaded Kastril is a fountain of half-baked bluster.
The production begins with an eruption of high comic energy, ignited by a pungent fart — metaphorically speaking. However, the manic momentum is not sustained after Lovewit returns, accompanied by an unruly gaggle of neighbours complaining of the shenanigans they believe occurred in the gentleman’s absence. Seems comeuppance isn’t as funny as plunging headlong into the pit of human depravity.
It must have been a terrible temptation for Cimolino to present The Alchemist in modern dress. Resisting the temptation makes for some anachronisms, but nothing that distracts from the satire.
For example, you don’t have to know the history of the Anabaptist movement — even though it’s undoubtedly more familiar in Waterloo Region with our Mennonite community — to recognize religious fanaticism when you see it.
The Alchemist continues through October 3 at the Tom Patterson Theatre.Tickets are available at 1-800-567-1600 or online at stratfordfestival.ca
(Featured image of Jonathan Goad, Brigit Wilson and Stephen Ouimette by photographer Steve Carty)