GARDEN GROVE — You had to smile, learning that actor-playwright Gregory Mortensen had adapted Ben Jonson's Renaissance London comedy, "The Alchemist," into a Gold Rush-era San Francisco comedy called "The Scoundrel."
Jonson, Shakespeare's chief rival, is rarely done anymore, and when he is, it's usually "Volpone." His comedy is caustic, mellowed only by a lilting verse style. It would be nice to hear actors deal with the original Jonson, but we'll take any updating with a title like "The Scoundrel."
It suggests some really nasty business--a wilder version of Jonson. Then why does everything feel so reined in at the Grove Shakespeare Festival's Gem Theatre?
This isn't a new problem at this theater. Two summers ago, on its outdoor stage, the Grove did a very safe updating of Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid." Its New Orleans setting did nothing to spark the actors, or make us think of Moliere in a new way. So why update it?
Maybe the suspicion is that the classics in original dress will scare away the crowds (remember, this is the same theater whose funding last year was threatened by city officials). You hope that you're wrong, but it's hard to find any other justification for doing Jonson with a soft underbelly.
Actually, Mortensen's adaptation has clever touches, beginning with the sense that the Barbary Coast is ripe for a farce about swindlers and those they hoodwink. Jonson's alchemist, Subtle, told his customers that he could make gold, and gold is the reason for the San Francisco boom town. Mortensen has changed the names--Subtle is now Dr. Alerdyce T. Smooth (Daniel Bryan Cartmell), his assistant Face is now Lucien Marmott (Mortensen), partner Dol Common is now Cassie Spooner (Cherie Brown). The characters, vices and motives remain the same.
The big motive is to swindle as many folks out of their gold as soon as possible before Lucien's master returns from the sea. Underneath, Lucien and Smooth have designs on each other. There is no one scoundrel in "The Scoundrel." In fact, Mortensen's ending one-ups Jonson for farcical cynicism, and it's here that we get a sense of the real Wild West.
Elsewhere, things are awfully tame. Stripped of the verse and the characters' florid visions of their own fortunes, "The Alchemist" is essentially a series of episodes where the con men dupe various innocents, and then the tables are turned on them. "The Scoundrel" is just that stripped-down version, without new twists. Good farce, even if it has episodes, makes us rise above them.
Mortensen might have a better farce, though, with a production that took more risks. Director Thomas F. Bradac has a conservative sensibility, which is the right one for some plays, but not for this one. Both Cartmell and Mortensen, two Grove stalwarts, look and sound uninspired, despite all of their delicious costume changes. Their movements are too studied and careful for the farce to fly, which has a chain-reaction effect on the ensemble. Brown's Cassie should be a ribald hussy, but she strikes us as anachronistically middle-class.
A few actors loosen the reins a bit, and express themselves. We know Bud Leslie's perplexed shop owner is in for big trouble the second he walks in the door, and he's perfectly counterbalanced by Rick Tigert's fatuous Sir Egmont, who is the closest thing here to what Jonson had in mind.
Gil Morales' set also looks hemmed in, missing the indulgent splendor that the Gold Rush winners enjoyed. But indulgence, or the dream of it, is what we have to see if the comedy is to work at all. The ingredients are here, but it feels like fool's gold.
The Grove Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Scoundrel" is playing through Nov. 4 at the Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Performances Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Tickets: $16 to $20; (714) 636-7213.