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Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Alchemists’ Lab at Point Park

Posted By on Thu, Dec 12, 2013 at 11:00 AM

If you’re looking for something truly madcap to cap the year, this wonderfully entertaining short-run show by the Point Park Conservatory Theatre Company should do the trick.


It’s a veeery loose adapatation and update of a 1610 Ben Jonson satire on greed and folly, written and directed by Gab Cody in collaboration with some two dozen Point Park theater students.

Basically, it’s about three con artists who run a retirement home as a front for a scam to sell a fake wonder drug called “The Madness” to gullible college students. But that doesn’t begin to capture this show’s wild farcical energy.

Somehow, Cody and the talented cast manage to jam every theatrical technique they could think of into a single frenetic plot and keep it from flying apart at the seams.

The play is stuffed with caricatures — stoned hippy, sexpot nurse, foulmouthed old woman, jock, nerd, cheerleader, repressed Christian youth, shape-shifting charlatan. Set it on spin, and watch the performers go to work with slapstick — tons of slapstick — plus commedia dell'arte masks, fourth-wall-smashing, a live band, an improvised song, an extended tap-dance sequence, a video-game parody, several cheerleading routines, shameless puns, a raccoon hand puppet, the machine-gun patter of screwball comedies, a bit of circus … you get the idea. And the cross-dressing includes a young man playing an old woman who in turn portrays a drag queen.

What’s it all mean? Cody’s a very clever writer whose other theatrical credits include lead writer on Bricolage’s STRATA , an immersive take on self-improvement seminars. She was her also playwright and co-star of 2011’s Fat Beckett (at Quantum Theatre), which satirizes consumerism. Alchemists’ Lab complements those critiques of our obsession with having it all, preferably in pill form.

But Alchemists’ Lab is also simply about the astonishing amount of fun that theater can be. Although you’ve seen every trick in this show before, Cody’s sharp direction and the cast’s boundless verve make it all feel new. The 100-minute, intermissionless work flies by with not more than a brief lull or two.

My only qualm concerns representation. Of the four African-American males on stage, one plays a character who can’t talk and two play women. And yes, this is a student production, it’s farce, and there’s a long history of theatrical cross-dressing; and for all I know, in this co-devised work, some performers invented or developed their own roles. But in a theater landscape still short of roles for black men, this remains a concern.

Otherwise, I recommend The Alchemists’ Lab heartily. The show (which opened Tuesday) has six more performances at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, tonight through Sunday. Tickets are $9-20 and are available here.

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