Jeune Lune’s Miser romps with
Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s joint production of Moliere’s The Miser with the American Repertory Theater and Actors Theatre of Louisville is a ringer. Director Dominique Serrand laces it with loopy physicality that had me rolling with laughter, and yet I squirmed at the self-interest, greed and duplicity in this play, written in 1668, that holds parallels with our national life.
The plot of The Miser is simple, but its themes of power, afforded by extreme wealth, unabated avarice and the ruthless manipulation of others remain timeless. Tyrannical old Harpagon has an overriding lust for money. He has buried a chest of it in the garden, yet he, his daughter, son and bedraggled servants live in poverty in a once-fine, but now falling-down chateau. He will not part with a single sou. No one gets paid. To save the cost of feeding his two offspring, Harpagon plans to marry them off to decrepit but wealthy suitors. Best of all, old Anselme requires no dowry for Elise. But Elise is in love with her father’s steward, a young man of unknown lineage, and Cleante loves a village girl, Marrianne, whom his father intends to wed. Fate intervenes in a pat way to end the play but leaves Harpagon’s fate ambiguous.
In a decidedly modern but true-to-the-spirit adaptation by David Ball, Jeune Lune company member, the beak-nosed, rubber-faced Steven Epp, embodies Harpagon. Vulture-like, with his bald head, wispy tufts of unwashed hair and fierce eyes, he creeps, minces, struts and scuffles about stage. No crippled old man, this. Epp’s changeable Harpagon becomes whatever the moment calls for. Dressed in the grubby and worn out rags of Sonya Berlovitz' costume design, Epp is a bent old man on a walking frame, when Harpagon courts the sympathy of young Marianne. When fury at his son, Cleante, sweeps him, a suddenly agile Harpagon chases the young man with a baseball bat. By turn, he can be lascivious and pathetic, angry then cloyingly manipulative, rational and arbitrary. Epp’s flexible face expresses more than the lines. He enters the role wholeheartedly in a physical way, as when he wittily airs Harpagon’s unspoken anxiety about impotence with no more than a limp arm. Harpagon is so tight-fisted that he steals oats from his starving horses and suspects everyone, even his children, of stealing from him. Self-interest and an obsessive desire for money drives this lonely man, who is feared by his children and hated by his cowering servants.
Epp is well supported by Jeune Lune’s gifted regulars. Stephen Cartmell returns from New Zealand to play a passionate Cleante, Harpagon’s would-be dandy of a son. As Cleante’s sister Elise, a buck-toothed Sarah Agnew whines and assumes wonderful gawkiness in her timidity. Isabell Monk O’Connor as the matchmaker has a superb scene with Harpagon, as does Vincent Gracieux in the hat-changing roles of the coachman and the cook. As La Fleche, Harpagon’s servant, remarkable Nathan Keepers is positively insectivorous, as he leaps onto windowsills and twines himself up walls. Jim Lichtscheidl and Natalie Moore round out the main characters as Valere, Harpagon’s autocratic, heel tapping steward, and Marianne, the naive young village girl.
The action takes place on Riccardo Hernandez' large box set of an elegant but dilapidated, naked room. A door, with a hole punched through it, hangs off its hinges. Another is propped against the wall. Floorboards are loose, not to mention full of surprises. Watermarks stain the walls. Plastic tarps dip from the ceiling, filled with rain from the leaking roof. Bird poop piles up on high molding, probably below an unseen nest, and we hear flapping pigeon wings in David Remedios’ sound design. Glass is missing from window panels, and unaccountably, a chair hangs on one wall. Briefly, at the opening, a swath of clear plastic separates the scene from the audience and works as a filmy barrier between reality and willed perception, like Harpagon’s distortions of the truth.
Moliere combined his fierce wit with elements of farce, circus, and commedia dell’arte in The Miser to criticize the society of his time; now, some 436 years later, his satiric tongue feels just as sharp and necessary. A scene in which Valere hopes to persuade Harpagon to let him court Elise, but in which he also needs to ingratiate himself with the tyrant, has overtones of the now familiar, "If you’re not for us, you are against us." Truth slips around, as when Harpagon reassures Elise that he will not force her to marry Anselme, unless she forces him to force her. Facts are misstated. He confides to the audience that he has a hoard of gold, then turns to his children and point blank denies that he has a penny. Criticism is punished. The self-interest at the play’s heart is pushed way beyond reality but reflects a discomforting truth about present political life. Ah, human nature - it is ever thus.
Jeune Lune mirrors Moliere’s skill in juxtaposing polar opposites to hilarious comic effect that also disturb. The production is deliciously playful, yet bitterly dark, and its knock-about comedy masks tragedy. By all artistic rights, this Miser should have the legs to go to New York. Don’t miss it.
The Miser October 28, 2004 – January 2, 2005. Thursdays – Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays – 7:00 p.m. See web site for matinees. $20 - $30. Theatre de la Jeune Lune, 105, North First Street, Street, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-6200. www.theatredelajeunelune.org.