To err is human, to forgive divine, though in this comedy of manners you’ll find very little divinity as no one seems to be in the forgiving mood. The Vagabond Players opens their 98th season with Molière’s most notable work, The Misanthrope. With a new translation by Richard Wilbur, the production is Directed by Howard Berkowitz and is a smashing good laugh with which to kick off the season. Differing from other farces of the 17th century, the play focuses on dynamic characters and their developments and nuances rather than plot progression. Presented in rhyming couplets, the show is an intellectual comedy with high-brow humors disguised in bantered insults; a well-performed engaging play of wits.
Scenic Designer Moe Conn spins a resplendent elegance into Celimene’s Veranda, the sole setting for the entirety of the production. The structure exudes a romantic air; twinkling pixie lights laced intricately into the trees, curls of ivy that wend around the posts of the gazebo, a very sensual affair. The classic French doors that gleam in white lead into the house beyond, serving as comic points of entry and exit whenever a scene begins to go awry. Conn’s classy seating options give every character a comfortable spot to rest their troubles even if they can’t seem to rest their mouths.
Director Howard Berkowitz takes on this classic French challenge with a lively approach. Using the new translation by Richard Wilbur makes the rhyming couplets fall easier on the ears so that the play does not become ensnared by its metered formula. Berkowitz cultivates the perfect balance among his actors when executing the highly stylized speaking patterns required to make this show a success; certain couplets landing with more of an emphasis on their rhymes while others drift subtly in the background of the audience’s ears.
The fascinating thing about Berkowitz’s production is that he spins the central focus of the production around, making Celimene the misanthrope. While Alceste is still clearly the belligerent, overbearing character who is quick to criticize everyone’s flaws and is ultimately alone; so too becomes Celimene in this performance. The subtle shifts in focus, especially the stunning visual scene at the very close of the show, augment Celimene’s true nature in a way that makes her also appear as the title’s character. Berkowitz’s approach to the leading lady leaves just enough to the imagination that you leave the theatre desperately craving a sequel.
All around the performances are spectacular, but the one thing that the cast struggles with unanimously across the board is breathing in their longer speeches and dialogue segments. This happens consistently throughout the production, especially with Arsinoe, where the actor starts a longer piece of text, packed with emotion and clever pacing, only to reach the end of it and trail off due to lack of breath. Normally this wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except that the tails of sentences and speeches in this production rely upon final words to make the rhymes of the couplets. All too often the the final word is delivered in such a breathless whisper that it doesn’t land and complete the rhyme. This becomes particularly crucial when the rhymes fall in mid-sentence and slide over into a new piece of text.
Despite the minor rhyming-breathing issue, the cast as a whole works exceedingly well with the couplet format of the production, often picking up each other’s rhymes without missing a beat. The pair that do this most successfully are Acaste (Matthew Shea) and Clitandre (Adam Bloedorn). These men do everything together, plot to love Celimene together, arrive together, they even storm off the stage together. Inseparable, Shea and Bloedorn add subtle comedy to their existence with little nuances in the way they speak their lines.
Shea presents a self-involved character with a polished arrogance that would outshine the sun, as so displayed when he goes on and on about how wonderful he is. He speaks so smoothly that you can almost see his lips glistening with oil. Bloedorn carries a smarmy aristocracy about his character as well, though much more refined in his approach than the boastful Acaste. His posture, especially when lounging out over the gazebo, exudes a confidence of an upper-class gentleman who cares not but for his own affairs.
Tempering these two blow-hardy fops is the gentle voice of rhyme and reason, coming in the form of Philinte (Rich Espey) and Eliante (Jessica Behar). Espey’s character is forever whispering calm words of reason to anyone who will listen, especially to Alceste, and tries to avoid the conflict as much as possible, though it is more than apparent that his heart beats for Eliante. Behar, as the gentle ingenue type character, delivers a rousing good speech about women and their flaws. The monologue is ripe with witty humors and is delivered with a fine precision, making her character innocent but wise. The love that bubbles gently betwixt them is the purest emotion in the production.
Adding a flare to the mix as one of Celimene’s many lovers, Oronte (Daniel Douek) explodes onto the scene with a bang. An innocent poet, whom is largely disliked by Alceste, (though where Alceste is concerned who isn’t?) Douek brings a rich comedy to the character. His bold protestations especially when barbing with Alceste are wildly expressive, full of melodramatic emotion that carries a higher format of comedy in this case, and his facial expressions only add to the laughter. Though only encountered sporadically, Douek makes his presence heard, known, and felt.
For every scandalous woman there is her foil of great piety and nobility, even if in this case it’s all slanderous the same as Celimene’s many lovers. Arsinoe (Cherie Weinart) arrives on the scene as the snotty, prudish thorn in everyone’s side. Weinart takes great pride in vocally puffing up her character’s pride and zeal; her insults hissed with purposefully slow pacing, letting each word she says land as a blow to Celimene’s character. Her character’s rich self confidence flutters away and melts into a shyness when around Alceste. But mostly there is a severity in everything she does, from the way she carries herself physically to the way she backhandedly trades insults with Celimene (Laura Malkus).
Malkus and Weinart engage in the verbal catfight of the highest intellectual fashion; bantering and barbing at one another with perfectly poisonously poised degradations, full character assaults snapping back in forth in a lazy volley of words. Malkus can dish out the insults with the best of them, her character acting as the gossip hub for the social elite. Skilled not only in scandalous opinions of others, she masters the coquettish charms of a scintillating vixen when it comes to flirting with Alceste (Eric Stein).
The pair together, Stein and Malkus, create a vibrant exchange of flirtations, as well as a passionate expression of opposing emotions. Malkus is expressive with her words and her slinky body language whereas Stein primarily makes use of his voice and frenetic pacing about the stage to express what mere words cannot. They are a riveting and engaging couple to watch interact.
Stein, as the assumed title character, bristles easily and delivers his sharp and frank way of speaking with a powerful punch. There is a moment at the top of Act II where he comes trumpeting onto the scene like a canon exploding in the middle of a war torn battlefield, his body and voice vying for the title of most spastic. Stein balances his moments of highly energetic tantrum (both physically and vocally) with more subdued moments of stillness, few as they are, and this really creates a dynamic portrayal of the character. He is thoroughly grounded in Alceste’s reality, pouring his heart (if it can be assumed his character has one) into every word that is spoken. Stein showcases a true understanding of Molière’s character; a compelling performance for this classic piece of dramatic comedy.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission.