The current production of David Ball's intentionally crude adaptation of Moliere's dark comedy, "The Miser"--"L'Avare"--at the ART is yet another reason to question that institutions founding dictum, "No More Masterpieces." Joining forces with Minneapolis-based Theatre de la Jeune Lune, for whom this version was prepared, the two companies have mounted a purposefully ugly version of this classic. Citing the perilous state of the world today, where "greed is good" still resonates with the political establishment, director Dominic Serrand who founded Jeune Lune in 1978 in Paris, joined in 1983 by Stephen Epp, their Associate Director who plays Harpagon, has chosen to push the tragedy and the author's personal crises some perceive to underlie the comedy. By turning the production into an exegesis on misery, Serrand manages to bury the ancient satire of the miser, the lunatic obsession with wealth. That quality may not have worked for the author in 1668--the original production was performed only four times--but the play has become over the centuries the most popular production of the Comedie Français--the House of Molière. Audiences get the point. There was no need for a radical rewrite.
If the cast weren't wearing Sonya Berlovitz eccentric costumes which suggest the period though displaying post-modern touches like neckties, sneakers, etc., but were dressed as shabby inhabitants of the American Southwest, the dialogue would be suggest more Sam Shepard than Plautus--its original source--Corneille and Racine--its language base--or the Commedia--its comic core. The original was written in prose rather than verse, which may have accounted for its frigid reception as much as its somewhat downbeat plot, but to modernize it by removing almost all poetic elements, does a disservice to the form. As grim as Moliere may have felt at the time, in failing health, with marital difficulties and political problems, he knew how to construct a comedy, especially when he had satire in mind.
All but the most naive audience knows that when a piece opens with frustrated lovers, the pair will be united by the end. The trials that lead to that resolution are essential to the fun. Serrand opens his production at a sepulchral pace with Will LeBow from the ART as Valére, the aristocrat in disguise--another revelation the audience can anticipate--and Sarah Agnew from Jeune Lune as Elise, Harpagon's unmarried daughter. The two are obscured by a huge sheet of plastic which draped over the front of the set. It's "Uncle Vanya" played in "The Lower Depths" all over again. When the servants drag down this drop, Riccardo Hernandez' set is revealed to be a faux-delapidated box of water-stained walls, reflecting the period, but with theatrical peculiarities built in, There's no furniture. except for a chair mounted high on the wall. The door upstage center turns out to lead primarily to the jakes, though like the other entrances and exits it most often serves the blocking. Marcus Dillard's flooded lighting is effective throughout.
The second frustrated love story is introduced when New Zealander Stephen Cartmell shows up as Cliante, the miser's stylish son, to confide his predicament to his sister. Unfortunately, the designer and the director have chosen to indicate his foppishness by a peculiar bustle of ribands and a purple Mohawk wig which the actor takes off and flails about. His accent might be taken for affectation if it didn't become ranting. Incidentally, LeBow seems to be trying for some combination of Italian and Spanish intonation, logical but annoying, while Agnew settles for a depressed whine. However, next it's time for the plot.
The kids duck out and Harpagon shows up to berate La Fléche, Cliante's valet played by Nathan Keepers in his sixth season with Jeune Lune. The scene begins to establish Harpagon's tyrannical character, but fails to place La Fleche in the household, though he does wind up sitting in the chair high on the wall, a bemusing moment. Of course, the old fool reveals that he's buried his gold in the garden but is sure no one's heard, neither the servant he's been abusing nor his children who enter inopportunely. The third comic anticipation has been revealed, the miser's fate is sealed, now it's a matter of playing the changes. And the author gets to slip in social satire whenever he can. Moliere begins this process by setting up a traditional Commedia plot where the father plans to marry the son's girl, while disposing of his daughter to a wealthy acquaintance, and incidentally marrying off the boy to a rich widow. The audience knows of course that none of this will happen and is prepared to enjoy the machinations, which begin when Valéúre in his role as the obsequious steward is assigned to convince Elise to marry Anselme, the old acquaintance. This scene is played with none of the usual behind the back communication between the lovers.
It's not until after Harpagon and Cliante have their famous shouting match about the boy's borrowing money from a usurer--who turns out to be his father--that any comedy sets in. The pace picks up when Karen McDonald, ART veteran and Boston comedienne, struts in as Frosine, the marriage go-between, wearing a tattered business suit and laddered red stockings, carrying a velvet lined pail as a handbag. Her scene with Harpagon, convincing him that the young girl really wants to marry him gets the first sustained laughs of the evening, even though the routine goes on too long. The entertainment continues as Harpagon assembles the household, issues his stingy orders, and scolds everyone. Serrand has decided to also have the skinflint take a bath onstage in a tin tub using rainwater collected in a plastic tarp which has been hanging down through a hole in the roof--an interesting technical challenge which upstages most of the action. Things pick up when ART comic Remo Airaldi takes on the challenge of playing Master Jacques, chef and coachman in a fat suit which amplifies his already hefty frame. He too gets his laughs, especially since his chef's hat is simulated by a plastic shopping bag secured with masking tape. This and other interpolations again interfere with the pace however. The following scene, where Jacques as the coachman tells Harpagon what everyone thinks of him, after which he is beaten by both his master and then Valére, who he tries to bully, sets up the rest of the drama slowly but adequately. Thankfully, it's time for an intermission.
In part two, the audience finally meets the fabled Mariane, played by Natalie Moore, who doubles in the first half as Mss. Claude the housekeeper. Her costume as the ingenue is an even bigger disaster than her boyfriend's, sort of gypsish for no reason and sporting red sneakers. In addition, the adaptor decided to render her lines in a sort of pidgin English, which has comic overtones entirely outside the script. The plotting and counterplotting continues as the evening wears on, until Cliante and La Fl¶che the valet, steal the gold from the garden. At this point after Harpagon is through running hither and thither, to signify that the title character's world falling apart, the rear half of the stage floor which has previously been merely bouncy becomes a teeter-totter,. The physical comedy as the cast copes with this mechanical obstacle keeps things at least interesting if distracted. But finally Bern Budd, a local actor who' s part of the Wellesley Summer Theatre company, shows up as the mysterious Anselme, the rich old man Harpagon intends for his daughter mainly because no dowery is needed. Since Anselme's elegantly dressed in Mediterrean white and well-spoken, the unlikely though expected revelations which set everything right are welcome, if somewhat fitful. Somehow the director doesn't want the suffering to end. Unsatisfied with Molière's neat ending, Serrand et al add a coda which includes a choral number with surtitles and a coffin. The audience reaction to superfluous ending echoed comments about the play in general; "What was that all about?"
The obsession to try and say something new, or at least change the focus of a classic, to somehow make an established play more relevant for the times, can be as equally fruitless as this show's title character's lust for gold and destructive stinginess. The skillful members of this combined company are somewhat like Harpagon's family, using their first rate talents to perpetrate an over-long unsatisfying evening in the theatre. The audience would get the point without the laborious change of focus, the degrading of the text--which still needs to be shortened in places--and the relentless refusal to take much joy in the effort. One has only to think back to Bob Jolly's turn at the role a few year's ago for the Lyric here in Boston , to realize that inviting an audience in with charm might send them home instructed. As a satire on greed, this dramatic monument will survive Jeune Lune's meager meddling. It's probably just as well that the school year is over. High school French classes won't have puzzle over this radical and depressing interpretation.
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