The audience didn’t stop laughing all night. Between Matt Minnicino’s rhyming couplet- filled, witty, knowing, sometimes bawdy adaptation (or, as he would have it, “distillation”) of a Molière classic and an acting ensemble with perfect comic timing, Avant Bard’s A Misanthrope succeeds on every level.
Updating Molière’s 17th-century script to a contemporary resort for the young, rich, and entitled, the play portrays the art of superficiality and its discontents. Most superficial of all is Celimene (Thais Menendez), a lovely young creature who should have her own reality TV show. Absorbed in her own flirtatious popularity, Celimene cheerfully plays one friend or potential mate against the others, which is fair because, of course, it’s all about her.
Improbably in thoroughly blinkered love with her, Alceste (Elliot Kashner), the misanthrope of the title, is all anger and snark, railing against the follies of his world and the foibles and insincerity of everyone in it. He’s smart, he’s quick with a quip, he’s constantly on the attack, caring not at all for the effects of his caustic self on others, which is also fair because, of course, it’s all about him.
Not everyone in this cossetted little universe is enraptured with its brittle surfaces. Philinte (Jenna Berk), Alceste’s only real friend, has a strong grip on reality and the need to lubricate social interactions with a certain amount of tact. Eliante (Chloe Mikata), sweetly nerdy, with a passion for grammar, first seen reading a copy of The Economist, is likewise capable of genuine, warm emotion. While Alceste is at the center of the story, these two are the characters an audience will want to root for.
Not so Oronte (Matthew Sparacino) and Arsinoe (Sara Barker). The former, smarmy, distinctly not smart, takes Alceste to court over an all-too-telling critique of his all-too-horrific poetry, and seeks to replace Alceste as Celimene’s main squeeze. The latter, a waspish gossip not far under her thin mask of propriety, less friend than faux, engages in a memorable insult fest with Celimene, in which both land all-too-true blows. She also transparently lusts after Alceste, much to his horrified dismay. Barker emits a low, throaty roar when her character’s truest self occasionally emerges, a monster from the id.
Hanna Sweet, in a dual role of personal assistants to Alceste and Celimene, has some delightful moments speaking very slowly and hesitantly, a nice contrast to the show’s generally brisk pace. Patrick Joy and Tendo Nsubuga round out the cast as additional young, rich, entitled men in Celimene’s orbit who engineer her ultimate comeuppance.
The level of acting is consistently high throughout, with not a weak spot in sight. Megan Behm’s skills as a director are evident in maintaining the pace and tone of the production. She also deserves credit for two consistent features of the cast’s performances. The delivery of Minnicino’s rapid-fire couplets is frequently leavened with a brief pause before the final word in a pair of lines, allowing the actor and audience to relish the coming joke. The character’s facial reactions – worth the price of admission on their own – are exaggerated just enough to fit the broadly comic feel of the show without crossing the line into slapstick mugging.
Megan Holden’s set nicely depicts the resort setting, complete with lounge chairs, a beach umbrella, a well-used drinks cart. Alison Samantha Johnson’s costumes are well designed for consistency with each character’s personality (e.g., a suit and tie for Alceste; informal, easygoing wear for Philinte and Eliante; a showily elegant outfit for Celimene, sloppy beach attire for Oronte).
This is as funny a show as you will see this year – and see it you should.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.