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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Flattery Makes the World Go Round in Molière's The Misanthrope

The Misanthrope
Louisa Braden Johnson and
John Patrick Hayden

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey returns to the stage in fine fettle with the opening production of its 2011 season, The Misanthrope, Molière's witty and insightful seventeenth century classic verse play of (and about) manners. Employing Richard Wilbur's sparkling 1955 translation composed in rhymed couplets, which has itself become a modern classic on American stages, director Bonnie Monte, her young, exuberant cast, and her crew bring us an infectious and visually delightful evening of spirited, guilt-free entertainment.

Alceste rejects the polite civility of society and refuses to be complicit in it no matter how much difficulty his stiff necked incivility causes him. Listen to (or, if you so choose, even delight in reciting out loud), Wilbur's translation of Alceste's harsh, critical words to his loyal friend Philinte:

I see you almost hug a man to death,
Exclaim for joy until you're out of breath,
And supplement these loving demonstrations
With endless offers, vows and protestations;
Then when I ask you "who was that", I find
That you can barely bring his name to mind!
Once the man's back is turned, you cease to love him,
And speak with absolute indifference of him!
By God, I say it's base and scandalous
To falsify the heart's affections thus;
If I caught myself behaving in such a way,
I'd hang myself for shame without delay.

Alceste is hopelessly smitten with the coquette Célimène (her Paris salon provides the evening's setting) despite the fact that she is the personification of all that he hates. He believes that she is committed to him despite her flattery to multiple suitors. Célimène is also a malicious gossip who ridicules each of her suitors behind their backs. Alceste's true friend, the moderate Philinte sensibly advises him not to persist in needlessly putting himself in peril by making powerful enemies:

But in polite society, custom decrees
That we show certain outward courtesies

Thus, Molière's disdain for the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the elite society of his time is balanced by his embrace of civility.

When the fawning Oronte seeks friendship along with an assessment of his poetry from Alceste, the latter harshly expresses his disdain of it. The insulted Oronte seeks satisfaction from a sitting Court which will adjudge and likely penalize Alceste.

Although there is a farcical tone to some of the proceedings and romantic attachments shift, The Misanthrope mostly trades in character portrayals, and a witty and engaging exploration of societal values.

The spirited, youthful cast brings a freshness and bounce to the proceedings which banishes any fustiness from encroaching on this production of the 1666 Molière classic. John Patrick Hayden effectively conveys the bilious discontent of Alceste without resorting to caricature. Jon Barker is an engaging Philinte. His reading of Wilbur's iambic pentameter is smooth and mellifluous, and his witty and accurate mimicry of Alceste is the comic highlight of this production. As Célimène's other suitors, Marcus Dean Fuller nicely depicts the shattering of Oronte's misplaced brash self confidence, Roger Casey captures the humor in Acaste's preening, and Mitt Bradford Sullivan's Clitandre is a delightful gossiping partner for her.

On the distaff side, Elizabeth A. Davis is both formidable and foolish without falling into the trap of failing to show us just why Célimène has men at her feet. Kersti Bryan is demure and likeable as her cousin Éliante should be. Louisa Braden Johnson stirs up a full can of worms as the jealous, fading, falsely moralistic Arsinoé.

Set designer Adam Miecielica's stage-wide, curved stairway is the centerpiece of his cleverly designed sumptuous to the eye white set which is perfectly partnered by Paul H. Canada's lush costumes for Molière's Parisian haute couture patrons.

With The Misanthrope, Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte continues to work the magic which has been earning STNJ the highest accolades.

The Misanthrope continues performances - Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 pm (except 6/26); Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm - through June 26, 2011, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.

The Misanthrope by Molière; English Translation by Richard Wilbur; directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast
Alceste..................................John Patrick Hayden
Philinte.................................................Jon Barker
Basque.................................................Einar Gunn
Oronte.....................................Marcus Dean Fuller
Célimène....................................Elizabeth A. Davis
Éliante................................................Kersti Bryan
Acaste................................................Roger Casey
Clitandre..............................Matt Bradford Sullivan
Arsinoé...............................Louisa Braden Johnson
Guard/Dubois...................David Joseph Regelmann


Photo: Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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