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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Misanthrope

We attended the opening night of the world premier of a newly translated version of Molière’s The Misanthrope at the American Conservatory Theater. Production wise it was a beautiful piece of staging. The colors, the lights and the costumes reminded me of early 20th Century Fox and MGM Technicolor films. It was lovely to look at. However, after saying that, I must say before writing a complete review, that I am not a great fan of Molière. Of the French playwrights, I prefer Georges Feydeau over Molière. When it comes to 17th Century playwrights, I prefer the Restoration’s writers. It is a matter of taste.

Some people say that The Misanthrope is Molire’s greatest play. I disagree. In my estimation, Tartuffe is his greatest play. I also believe that I preferred ACT’s treatment Tartuffe last season over this current production. I have seen The Misanthrope twice over the years and each time I found it moderately pleasant. The past productions were more stylize and more foppish.

The play is about Alceste and the love of his life, Celimene. It is a love mismatch. Alceste is a misanthrope, a hater of mankind while Celimene is conceited and shallow, being everything that Alceste dislikes in a person. Alceste is contemptuous and he is disgusted by a society that tells the truth only when the subject’s back is turn. Alceste is determined to speak to everyone he meets with uninvited candor.

The production centered on the pretensions that people display in society. At the same time, direct honesty was shown to have unfriendly consequences. Other characters parading about the stage included Philinte, a good friend of Alceste. He was just the opposite in character since he was less frank and more sincere toward others. Arsinoe who was a “friend” of Celimene. She serves as a foil being just as clever but less shallow.

This new version was by Constance Congdon from a translation by Virginia Scott. Ms. Congdon said “The language I chose is slang-free American English, typical of the latter half of the 20th century.” That might be, but I still prefer the 1952 Wilbur translation. This new version was more cerebral. The speeches were ethereal. There were long and laborious dissertations on honesty, false pretensions, vanity etc. etc. There was no flash among the players. It was more recitation with little or no action. Characters kept sashaying in and out of scenes, and the tempo became sluggish many times.

I thought David Adkins and Rene Augesen as Alceste and Celimene were miscast. However, some of the blame must rest on the playwright since these characters are usually fops. These characters had no appreciation of Molire. I thought that David Adkins was more like John Adams in 1776. The early line readings of Ms. Augesen did not bode well. At the beginning her voice was flat and had no sparkle. I saw no spark between the two characters. There were long speeches that were not projecting toward the end of the theater. Much of it was lost to those sitting toward the rear of the Geary.

George Wallace made an excellent Philinte. He had a great resonant voice and his inflections were perfect. He seems to know his way around Molire. Anthony Fusco was fine as the overcooked Oronte. Chris Ferry, another suitor of Celimene, was true camp as a narcissistic character. His scene with four mirrors, and maids behind these mirrors moving the objects around, is one of the most hilarious scenes of the production. Kimberly King was remarkable as Arsinoe. In her big scene with Celimene, she outshined Ms. Aguesen with her presence and voice. That scene sparkled. The Who’s Who’s said she appeared in James Joyce’s The Dead though my New York program did not list her.

Most of the dialogue rhymes in couplets of six beats. It was translated into English iambic pentameter with rhymed couplets. The difference here is that the playwright has tried for a more modern 20th Century approach. As a result, a great deal is in a pedestrian speech pattern. Good examples are such as “Ah, don’t scoff”, said Alceste, “I’ve just begun to tell you off” I like what Philinte says to Alceste, “You’re a comic figure in your wrath, like Poseidon roaring up from a birdbath”.

The set was gorgeous. Its was simple but the colors were striking. The stage was a mathematical transparency with great scrims of Kate Edwards two tiered set. The scrims were in pastel greens and blues and some are transparent as a street scene gives way to Celimene’s fantastic mirrored boudoir. The bed alone was a work of camp art. I could see that bed in some of the homes in Hollywood. The 17th Century gowns and frock coats were marvelous.

The bottom line here was I just wish the acting on the part of the principals had been more lively. I wish there were more life in the words of new version. It was a pretty, but flat, production. It runs until November 19.

A Christmas Carol opens on November 27th. Production is at Geary Theater and tickets are $15 to $61.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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