Moliere Thrives in Jazz Age
Directed by Jerry Ruir '00
Produced by Rachel Sexton '00
Loeb Experimental Theater
More than a few productions in the Loeb Experimental Theater have tried for originality simply by changing a play's setting and adding lots of sexual innuendo. While Rachel Sexton '00's production of The Misanthrope uses both of these devices, in this case, the added twists enhance the play's charm and the end result is both cosmetically and intellectually refreshing. Of course, Moliere's tale of the struggle between honesty and courtesy would be poignant in any age. Setting Moliere in the Roaring Twenties, though, works particularly well, since the excesses of 17th century Parisian society translate rather easily to the freewheeling atmosphere of the Jazz Age.
The Misanthrope treated its audience to a wonderful production all around. The play recounts the story of Alceste, an avowed misanthrope disgusted with society's hypocrisy. Only love for the widow Celimene keeps Alceste from abandoning society. However, Celimene is also one of the greatest flirts around, and throughout the play, she courts every man she finds, convincing each that she loves only him.
Everyone in the cast held his own. The attractive set made good use of the theater's limited space, and the lighting and sound effects were executed without a hitch. Even the costumes, most notably Celimene's colorful flapper outfits, were delightfully cheerful.
The production features a great deal of physical acting and humor, and this style works most of the time. For instance, Oronte's (Nabil Kassam '01) exaggerated, pompous style keeps the audience in stitches and coincides well with his ridiculous literary aspirations. As Alceste, James Carmichael '00 best embodies this physical style, performing the same kind of frenetic dashes that he made so hilarious in last semester's What the Butler Saw. Carmichael maintains a terrific energy level, and constantly sends his high-strung character into wild fits of obsession and indignation. Kirk Hanson '99 follows close behind as Basque, a minor figure who is expanded into a wacky butler who constantly barges in on amorous couples. Between the two of them, Hanson and Carmichael wreak havoc on the set as they scurry from place to place.
Despite its knee-slapping moments, this intense physical style can be a bit disconcerting in a play like The Misanthrope, which derives so much of its appeal from the verbal thrust-and-parry modeled after the wits of Moliere's France. Action often interrupts the rhyme and rhythm of the verse, and constant physical exertion occasionally leaves actors too flustered to deliver their lines smoothly. The play's periodic farcical episodes and silly characters can be amusing though, as long as they are timed so as not to interfere with the dialogue. For example, when director Jerry Ruiz '00 mixes Basque's hectic preparations with an impromptu swing dance at Celimene's party, the audience can choose either to laugh at the valet's antics or to enjoy the well-choreographed steps (a tribute to the dance's newfound popularity).
The only real tragedies occur when these physical actions distract the audience from the dialogue, as is the case with Celimene's famous portrait scene. Distractions from her audience and an intoxicated Alceste tend to draw attention from Celimene's speeches. Celimene's subsequent confrontation with the prudish Arsinoe (Catherine Crow) stands in marked contrast, since the characters receive the audience's full attention during one of literature's great cat fights.
Leading actress Tegan Shohet '01 artfully portrays Celimene, who deftly manipulates her suitors and rivals with seductive charm. Shohet is probably the least exaggerated of the characters; her calm control reminds audiences that she is running the show. Her greatest exertions accentuate Celimene's sexuality, tempting Alceste with a stocking-clad leg or suggestive negligee. One of the best scenes in the play has Celimene transforming Alceste from an indignant suitor into a groveling wretch. As she humiliates Alceste into wearing a ridiculous feathered band, the audience sees Celimene at the height of her coquettish powers.
In addition to the physical comedy, Ruiz adds a number of features to The Misanthrope that are not only appropriate to the new setting but also enhance the entire production. Alceste's complaints against the hypocrisy of his times may well have come from cynical journalists in the 1920s, so his occupation suits his disposition in the play. Celimene's many lovers are a sign of the fast-moving times, and her role as hostess, a nod to women's greater independence after the War. The most exciting new feature of the play however, comes at the end of the second act. The scene shifts continually from Celimene's apartment to Alceste and Arsinoe. The audience watches Alceste discover Celimene's deception at the same time they see her graphically seduce nearly every male in the cast. So, without any dialogue, the play highlights the 1920s' sensual excesses, Celimene's coquetry and Arsinoe's hypocrisy.
The play keeps going strong right through the end. In the final analysis, the characters face the struggle of choosing between rudeness and politeness, hypocrisy and honesty. Ruiz at first seems to side with Alceste and his obsession with frank expression. The disenchanted reporter seems oddly calm as he packs his bags, forsaking his love to escape the corrupt society of man. Celimene, on the other hand, sits alone, quietly nursing a drink as the lights fade out on her shattered world. Shohet's soulful portrayal of Celimene's despair would be a perfectly fine way to conclude the play.
However, the audience also get to see the excitement of Eliante (Claire Farley '01) and Philinte (Julio Gambuto '00), the one happy couple to emerge from Celimene's downfall. Both had been voices of moderation during the play, striking a balance between politeness and honesty. Ruiz leaves us wondering whether the kind of happy medium that rewards the lovers might have been Moliere's intended moral when he wrote The Misanthrope over 300 years ago. Any production that can both amuse and engage its audience so effectively should be considered a resounding success.