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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Alceste, Moliere's outraged defender of truth over empty flattery, fidelity over popularity, enduring values over going with the flow, has challenged many an actor. The full of sound and fury title character of The Misanthrope is that remarkable creation — a man who's able to make us laugh while also stirring us to contemplate sobering truths about the world we live in, whether the courtly society of Moliere's day or our own high-tech, ever changing lifestyles.
Because the masks of insincerity continue to rule much social behavior even as fashions and customs change, The Misanthrope remains one of Moliere's most popular plays, undergoing numerous prose and verse translations (the verse versions are generally more popular) and continuing to challenge directors to find new relevancy and heft in the satire that's said to have been inspired by Moliere's own relationship with his much younger actress-wife.
Though the Flemish director Ivo van Hove is one of the most talked about revisionists of classic plays he is not the first to move Moliere's empty society into the present. Martin Crimp's playful version was set in Hollywood with Célimène, depicted as and played by a genuine movie star, Uma Thurman (review). Van Hove's much anticipated version not only moves the action into the present but, in the manner of the Wooster Group's cinematic style, makes extensive use of modern technology to transform this into an experience that combines living theater with cinema. Sometimes the upstage video screen is an on-camera close-up of what's happening on stage, or a front-face view of an actor with his back to the audience; at other times, the video image is different from the live action, with the actors eventually leaving their on-screen environment and entering the stage through a doorway at the rear of the playing are. Add the actors' use of cellphones, blackberries and you have a Misanthrope that would leave Moliere scratching his head. And there's more. This is quite a sexy production which also features director van Hove's trademark penchant for subjecting his leading actors to unappetizing physical situations.
To start with the sex. Under van Hove's direction, Bill Camp, a superb character actor whose name doesn't spring to mind instantly when discussing sexy thespians, writhes all over the floor of this cage-like stage with sensuous physicality (there's a lot of writhing by other members of the cast). With Serralles playing the flirtatious Célimène, with a fine mix of sexual avariciousness and emotional vulnerability, it's easy to understand why Alceste is smitten with her despite her being much too young for him and his disdain for the social milieu which she refuses to abandon for him.
As for the unorthodox physical business. While Camp creates the havoc at a gossipy lunch by Célimène's cohorts, it's he who bears the brunt of the mess he makes by smearing all manner of food all over himself. It's all real enough to permeate the theater with a nauseating odor. I'm not convinced that any real purpose is served by this food fest beyond its shock value. However, van Hove fearlessly and quite amusingly takes this even further by breaking down the fourth wall for a videographed fight between the lovers outside the theater which ends with more rolling around on the floor —this time in bags of garbage they dragged in from the street.
Not surprisingly, all this noirish modernity tends to outshine both Moliere and the actors. But while van Hove's imposing his messy, technology driven and ultimately somewhat sentimental vision on Moliere's characters doesn't work for all of the nearly two uninterrupted hours, the rhymed translation by Tony Harrison is witty and up-to-date and despite some too campy lines retains much of the musicality of the original verse and the characters' tensions and temperaments. And Camp's terrific, impassioned Alceste speaks Harrison's dialogue with natural ease and clarity. This is also true for Thomas Jay Ryan as Alceste's more able to compromise friend Philinte, but not for some of the other actors who are too often called upon to scream rather than speak.
Mr. van Hove's vision is given strong support by the scenic and video designers Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden. Emily Sousa's cocktail party uniform of black pants, open necked white shirts and bare feet for all the actors fits the production's overall look and also works well for all the writhing around the floor.
While this Misanthrope is more likely to be viewed as a novelty rather than to take its place alongside more durable, purist pleasing revivals, it is nevertheless worth appreciating on its own merits. It's stylishly entertaining and those clever verses, especially when spoken by Bill Camp, do make for enjoyable easy listening.
Links to other van Hove deconstructed plays for NYTW:
More Stately Mansions
A Streetcar Named Desire