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Sunday, 14 August 2011

Review: A Lesson in Class - The Misanthrope

Members of the Misanthrope cast. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedmann

By Moliere; translation by Richard Wilbur
Directed by David Grindley

The Story: Alceste is fed up with the two-faced nature of everyone at court, and is resolved to leave mankind behind to live like a hermit where he is free to speak the unvarnished truth. Unfortunately for him, he happens to be in love with one of the falsest creatures on earth, the charming coquette Célimène. When Alceste’s brutal honesty lands him in trouble with the law, and Célimène’s behaviour gets her censured in public, these two opposites may have a chance to attract – but can either of them bend enough to accept the others’ faults?

Director David Grindley was last at Stratford to direct the punk-rock-n-roll Midsummer Night’s Dream of 2009. In that production he gave the play a fresh, almost wild look; in directing Moliere’s The Misanthrope in 2011 however, he stepped back and set it in the Rococco period, roughly 100 years after the Baroque play was penned. This means that this very talky play has little action, but a lot of style.

The set, designed by John Lee Beatty, is a veritable chocolate box of gilding, drapery and light. And the costumes! Robin Fraser Payne’s designs must have take the wardrobe department a year’s worth of work to stitch, and in particular the dress worn by Sara Topham is a frothy confection of pink ruffles, bows and flounces, that could have been lifted straight from The Swing, a 1767 painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard. (Not that the other women’s dresses and men’s multi-layered suits are anything to sneeze at either.)

The acting is anything but frothy, even thought the tone remains light. As Alceste, the Misanthrope of the title, Ben Carlson is as masterful with Moliere as he is with Shakespeare, turning translator Richard Wilbur’s rhyming couplets – which could sound like Dr. Seuss in many actors’ mouths – into everyday conversation. He takes Alceste from rage to heartbreak without ever missing a beat, and one does feel the truth and conviction of the character at every turn.

Sara Topham as Celemine, Ben Carlson as Alceste.
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedmann
Alceste’s love interest, Célimène, is played with both fire and wide-eyed – but false - sweetness by Sara Topham. She shows Célimène to be immature with her petulant rages, but with a slowly dawning realization that she may have gone too far with her behaviour. She also gives as good as she gets, taking on both her rival Arsinoé and her lover Alceste and often getting the better of them. Ms. Topham and Mr. Carlson share one fantastically stormy scene which is riveting in its passion, humour and sweetness.

Kelli Fox as Arsinoe.
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedmann
Alas, Alceste’s ‘radical honesty’ and Célimène’s gossipy slander is no more popular in 1666 as it is in 2011. When the two lovers finally part, the audience witnesses two hearts breaking.  

The other actors are equally strong in their performances; Kelli Fox makes Arsinoé a pleasure to dislike, as does Steve Ross and Trent Pardy in their roles as the simpering courtiers Clitandre and Acaste – Mr. Pardy’s Acaste is particularly glittering and mean. Not to be outdone, Peter Hutt takes Oronte’s foppishness down a notch and replaces it with a shade of chilly malevolence.   Robert King, Brian Tree and Brigit Wilson are wasted in their small roles, although Mr. Tree makes the most of the inarticulate Dubois .

Martha Farrell as Eliante.
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedmann

As for the true lovers in the play, as Philinte Juan Chioran is at his best when imitating a raging Alceste and exchanging knowing looks with Eliante; played by Martha Farrell, Eliante becomes not just the steady voice of reason, but also a lively woman entirely capable of throwing palpable sparks at Alceste (it is not her fault that it is Philinte who catches fire for her).

All in all, this is a classily acted and designed production of a classic play that is a pleasure to hear and see. It continues at the Festival Theatre until October 29 in repertory.

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