Lawrence B. Johnson / Special to The Detroit News
The original article may be found here.
It’s not so much that the peevish fellow in Molière’s The Misanthrope can’t abide people. What he can’t stand is society’s standard operating procedure: the pretension, the hypocrisy, the affectation and the double-dealing.
Molière was poking fun at mid-17th century Parisian society, and yet…well, suffice it to say the acerbic wit of The Misanthrope still hits home more than four centuries later in what continues to pass for civilized society. Why this send-up of manners has never lost its charm is plainly to have been seen and savored in the Hilberry Theatre production that opened Friday night.
The Misanthrope is the ultimate ensemble play, written entirely in rhymed couplets for nine actors who most not only deliver their lines like natural speech but often break into each other’s thoughts — all the while preserving the poetry’s rhythm and the dialogue’s fluency.
It’s a tour de force right down the line, from Molière’s brilliant original to Timothy Mooney’s flavorful English adaptation to the spunky performances by the Hilberry company and director Jesse Merz.
The gist of the play is that Alceste, a sober young man who disdains the two-faced nature of social politesse, is hopelessly smitten by Célimène, a society demoiselle who is the epitome of caprice. Thus by turns Alceste sighs with a lover’s adoration one moment only to scold the flitting Célimène the next.
Even as our ambivalent hero resists the moderating council of his good friend Philante, he also must deal with his posturing rival Oronte and fend off the gorgeous but calculating Arsinoé, who has her sights fixed on Alceste.
It would be farce if it weren’t so plausibly realistic, and this elegantly styled and handsomely decorated production stays right on Molière’s fine satirical line.
As Alceste, Andrew Papa offers a reasonable man who wants nothing more than to hear honesty from his companions. In short, tell it like it is. If you speak disparagingly of someone behind his back, don’t smile and praise and clasp the hand of that person in his presence. But when put to that test, Papa’s Alceste finds it’s impossible not to be rude.
The trial instance comes when Oronte — the prancing, scraping Alan Ball — implores Alceste to hear a sonnet he has written and to confer his honest opinion. What follows is something between an operatic duet and a vaudeville routine as Papa’s Alceste turns himself inside out trying not to dodge calling Oronte’s drivel by its right name. Ball’s hapless poet slowly gets the drift, and the whole delicate dance blows up in disastrous candor.
A similar catty square-off finds Vanessa Sawson’s pert, flirty and ever-equivocating Célimène in an escalating fusillade of insults with Lorelei Sturm’s acid-tongued Arsinoé. As their flying couplets become slings and arrows, you barely breathe lest you miss some fine abusive point.
Viewing these dustups from the sidelines, as adviser and occasional referee, stands Dave Toomey’s calm, rational, pragmatic Philinte. And adding exotic spice to it all are Jordan Whalen and Edmund Alyn Jones as two over-the-top fops who see life itself as a costume drama.
Speaking of costumes, John D. Woodland dresses the actors with eye-popping flair. And for that matter, Michael Wilkki’s Baroque set, with its curves and feathers, is fun to take in even before the play begins.
Lawrence B. Johnson is a cultural writer and critic. firstname.lastname@example.org