The Misanthrope
February 10, 2011
The Rogue in Hilberry Theatre, Reviews

Molière’s The Misanthrope is a vicious comedy on every front. The superior title character shoots from the hip, letting fly with his every scathing criticism; even among the “polite” members of society, gossip and back-biting abounds. Yet the blithely two-faced practices of seventeenth-century French aristocracy are well tolerated by its practitioners: in a world where as many as four men can pursue the same woman simultaneously — in the same room, even — without batting an eye, certain social niceties do seem to be useful. In the Hilberry Theatre’s current production of the Timothy Mooney translation, directed by Jesse Merz, whether unflinching honesty or perpetual facetiousness is the better tactic is not definitively answered, but it’s quite obvious which side has more fun.

The misanthrope is Alceste, played here by Andrew Papa as a brilliant but sour boil on the derriere of his social circle. He’s a special breed of imperious boor who offends people so thoroughly, they sue him for the injury, as prompted by a delightful scene with foppish supplicant Oronte (Alan Ball). In fact, Alceste might willingly withdraw from humankind altogether, were it not for his inconvenient adoration of the coquettish, popular Célimène (Vanessa Sawson), who strings him along as readily as she does her numerous other suitors. The discourse among these players and their contemporaries is so artificial, they’re able to converse frankly about the role disingenuousness serves in social convention; it appears to be among their favorite pastimes after complimenting each other disingenuously. In contrast to the practiced airs and flourishes of the others, Papa’s Alceste sulks and frowns, sometimes enjoying lording his opinion over others, but more frequently miserable.

The play is set in Célimène’s ludicrously extravagant salon, with gilt, plumes, and chandelier courtesy of designer Michael Wilkki. This is flock central for would-be lovers and hangers-on, most notably over-the-top trend buddies Clitandre (Edmund Alyn Jones) and Acaste (Jordan Whalen). A campy, riotous twosome, it’s to the viewer’s benefit that Jones and Whalen never met an exclamation they didn’t like. Conclusive evidence of the agelessness of catty behavior takes the form of Arsioné (Loreli Sturm), who parades and exclaims under the guise of dearest concern; her expertly leveled, backhanded jabs at the woman at the center of attention are formidable. The main action's frequent cacophony is well countered by the quiet romance of darlings Philinte (Dave Toomey), Alceste’s friend and confidante, and Éliante (Samantha Rosentrater), Célimène’s timidly sincere cousin, who represent the promise of true affection in a cynical world. As for the others, they're due for some comeuppance, even the queen bee; Sawson's social mastery and aggressive flirtatiousness become desperately captivating as her spell appears to break.

The cast has been coached through its two hours of rhyming couplets by Michael J. Barnes; the rhymes parry and quip, although snippets of the language feel anachronistically contemporary. Readying the audience for the onslaught, Jason Cabral’s Basque gives a cheeky rhyming incantation of a curtain speech and contributes playful physical comedy between scenes, contrasting the servant’s private hygenic indecencies with the publicly encouraged Mean Girls machinations of those of higher station. John D. Woodland's costumes have baroque flair in excess, in particular a few outstanding head adornments. The atmosphere is completed by Jason Pratt's haughty instrumentals and Nina Pullin's period movement coaching, which Ball in particular elevates to hilarious extremes.

Few characters come out of The Misanthrope unscathed; as often happens, people masquerading as flippant social butterflies prove themselves to be quite susceptible to insult when the finger points back at them. For the viewer, however, the whimsy inherent in the play's backstabbing and public takedowns makes for some very funny material; this production is particularly notable for its flurry of humorously indulgent absurdity thrown into relief by a hardened, mirthless protagonist.

The Misanthrope is no longer playing.
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