Jean Baptiste Poquein, better known to the theatre world as Moliére, was the seventeenth master writer of dark comedy and satire. He, like such other noted scribes as George Bernard Shaw, skewered that which they thought was ridiculous.
Moliére's subjects include hits on religion, the Catholic church in particular, and upper class society, especially the two-faced way in which they told one tale when a person was present, but another story behind the person's back.
An attack on the two-faced nature of friendships and conversations is the topic of THE MISANTHROPE, which is now being produced by the Case Western Reserve/Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts students.
THE MISANTHROPE centers on Alceste, a so-called idealist who believes people are inherently dishonest hypocrites. Alceste says what he believes, no matter the consequences, which include lawsuits for slander, conflicts with his lady love, and his decision to retire into seclusion.
Moliére is the master of satire. This comes through clearly in Richard Wilbur's English verse translation of THE MISANTHROPE. The lines are filled with clever bon mots, sly comic innuendoes, and delightful verbal attacks. One of the major challenges of the script is to stay true to the writing style while being sure to stress meaning within the poetic style.
Though written centuries ago, the ideas are still relevant. Moliére challenges each viewer to ask, "What is truth?" "What is your truth?"
He preaches that we each have to negotiate through lives filled with potentiAl Verbal land mines. The question is how do we negotiate around them, or do we wage war by hurling blunt truths in the form of verbal hand grenades. Do we tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Or, tell little white lies? Or, speak "diplomatically?" Or, ignore confrontations with the hope that they will go unnoticed and have little effect? Whatever the choice, what are the consequences?
Case Western Reserve professor Donald Carrier's direction of THE MISANTHROPE is generally on course. He finely walks the tightrope between satirical farce and slapstick, except in one instance. Why he decided to add a shtick of a man carrying too many suitcase, who stumbles and trips and throws them hither and yon, is beyond comprehension. Did it get a laugh? Sure, prat falls usually do, but what was the purpose regarding the story line and the expertly controlled farce elements of the rest of the production?
The cast is universally strong. Stephen Spencer is correctly outrageously hyper as the moralistic Alceste. He never goes over the line. We laugh with him, not at him.
Bernard Bygott is character good as Alceste's friend, Philinte. TJ Gainley is fey-successful as the sonnet writing Oronte. Though she sometimes stresses the rhythm and rhyme pattern of the writing, thus putting form before substance, lovely Therese Anderberg is acceptable as Célimène, Alceste's love interest.
Sarah Kinsey is wonderful as Eliante, Célimène's cousin. The scene at the end of the play where she rejects Alceste's advances was a show highlight and garnered just applause. Christa Hinkley is bitch-perfect as the aloof Arsinoé.
Cameron Caley Michalak's set design and Michael Boll's lighting add to the visual elements of the production.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Programs' THE MISANTHROPE is a delightful production of a historic classic.
THE MISANTHROPE runs through November 3 at the Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre (The Helen) on the lower level of CPH's Allen Theatre. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.clevelandplayhouse.com.