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A CurtainUp Review
Moliere's The Misanthrope confronts us with a protagonist who steadfastly adheres to a set of self-righteous principles that, while admirable, become a test not a single person can possibly pass. The Pearl Theatre Company also adheres to an admirable set of principles that occasionally, as in this instance, misfire.
If the Pearl's ambitious revival of the French master's most mature and realistic farce has its bright moments, it is too often dulled by less than stellar supporting performers who have yet to embrace all the graces demanded by a play that stands alongside Tartuffe as Moliere's supreme achievement. When performed at its best and by a company at its peak of technique, it becomes a pure and classic example of how comedy elevated to intellectual heights can make you chortle with delight without having to watch characters take pratfalls, slide under beds or jump into closets.
We are most grateful, therefore, for the bristling performance by Sean McNall, as Alceste, who, with our blessing, delectably decimates a society made up of fools and fops. Moliere makes his audience laugh by emphasizing the ridiculous, but seriously intended behavior of Alceste, the ultimate critic. McNall offers us an amusingly self-satisfied image of a man who cannot compromise his own integrity for the sake of peaceful co-existence. This inflexibility makes him not only a general nuisance to society but also a real problem to his friends. Even the best and most well-meaning advice offered by his worldly wise best friend Philinte (amicably portrayed by Shawn Fagan), prompts Alceste to retort with a parting air of nonchalance, "You ought to die of self-disgust."
The Misanthrope has been said to be the least comic of Moliere's comedies. Nevertheless, McNall, a member of the Pearl's resident company, makes it relatively easy for us to see the neurotically comical side of this overly critical human being. Whether cringing with displeasure at all and everything or squinting with moral indignation, McNall delivers Richard Wilbur's sublime translation with a naturalistic prose style that heightens the humor of the poetry.
Janie Brookshire is making her Pearl debut as Celimene, the object of Alceste's grand passion. She is very pretty and floated about with coquettish charm in a red and white satin gown even though burdened with a towering coiffure that looked like the forest primeval. She seemed to become more comfortable with the inherent drollery of her role as the play progressed, finally coming into her own in a bitchy encounter with her older friend and rival Arsinoe (Joey Parsons).
Kern McFadden as the pompous poseur Oronte, Alceste's rival, earns our laughter as he reads his trite poem to the disgust of his critical friend. Robin LeMon spoke Eliante's lines with the gentle sincerity of someone who is still trying to figure out what they mean. Matthew Amendt and Patrick Halley make us wince as the scarily clownish marquises and were apparently encouraged in their posturing charades by their purposely outré costumes designed by Sam Fleming.
Designer Harry Feiner's setting — a row of French doors on a neutral faux marble bi-level playing area — does the job of evoking Celimene's house in Paris. Although director Joseph Hanreddy is no stranger to the classics as the former artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, he seems to have left too many in the supporting cast adrift in the presumed manners of Paris in the 17th century. Too bad that they all too often appear to be looking for a firmer and more secured lifeline back into the otherwise timeless joys and sorrows of The Misanthrope.