Translated by Richard Wilbur
Directed by Charles Newell
Produced by Court Theatre
‘Paris is burning.’ In more ways than one…
We are all vice from the point of view of Molière. Thus the efforts of every ‘moral reformer’ entails a necessary act of self-exclusion. Shakespeare’s Malvolio and Jacques were both melancholics of this sort whose disdain for others came at the price of not participating in Shakespeare’s grander comic vision. And Alceste, the principled titular character of Molière’s The Misanthrope—being given a sumptuous and frequently hilarious staging at Court Theater under director Charles Newell—appears destined to follow along just such a path.
Molière’s comedy is the story of Alceste—a young contrarian disgusted by the false flatteries and double natures of his society. This, of course, poses certain problems as his own beloved Celimene is willing to be all things for her many suitors. Unfortunately, Alceste is the kind of guy who sooner or later gets on everybody’s bad side, his quixotic and uncompromising search for a completely authentic world doomed to pit him against the otherwise real people occupying this one.
Besides, authenticity—insofar as it indicates an ability to express oneself convincingly—is not really the problem for Molière’s assemblage of courtiers and coquettes who express more of themselves in a flattering truth or gossipy insinuation than Alceste is able to muster in all of his ponderously solemn ‘truth-telling.’ Alceste wishes to think his situation a tragic one, but that’s only because he fails to see the comedy of the situation. And though he wishes others to think he has the answers, he rarely does.
It’s of no slight importance, for instance, that Molière’s grand illustration of Alceste’s commitment to Truth is in his scathing critique of Oronte’s sonnet (delivered by the superb A.C. Smith), an act which tellingly blurs the line between Truth and Taste. For in The Misanthrope, the self-stylizations of Taste are the closest one actually comes to truth, and ‘performance’ (even a vain, dissembling, or flattering one) becomes by default the truest expression of one’s inner nature. That is, in a world where only fashion is real, ‘drag’ itself becomes a kind of philosophizing.
And this insight, I think, is ultimately what makes Newell’s production so successful. Evoking maybe the Harlem ball culture of New York’s drag circuit where participants “walk” in proud, costumed displays, there is a kind of splendid pageantry to even the worst of Newell’s vices.
Dressed by costumer Jacqueline Firkins in beautifully brocaded 18th-century period pieces, Newell’s baroque opulence is wholly unconcerned with the subtle refinements of Alceste’s philosophical truth, preferring always the artful dissemblance of illusion.
Arsinoe for example is played by Allen Gilmore in drag, in a psychologically insightful performance which approaches the level of High Camp. And Travis Turner and Michael Pogue as the gossipy (male) marquesses don’t so much cross stage left as they vogue, every entrance, exit and even mild gesture given a highly stylized twist. And Grace Gealey as Alceste’s beloved Celimene delivers an acutely well-observed performance as Molière’s hyper-conspicuous ‘diva.’
And Erik Hellman as the dour misanthrope manages to underscore Alceste’s intensely cerebral frustrations with a genuine pang of the heart. And even if Alceste is unwilling to laugh at himself, at least Hellman doesn’t deny us the pleasure of doing so.
As stuffed full of well-measured comedic performances and lush production values as you are likely to see anytime soon, Newell’s Misanthrope feels as hedonistically indulgent as any French courtier. Like an opulent Parisian banquet (or a drag ball in Harlem), it’s strengths are in its cultivation of the surface’s glittering allure. And in never deigning to take itself as seriously as Alceste takes himself, this production still manages to probe deeper than any hair-brained philosophy.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Saturday, May 18th, 2013.
The Misanthrope runs until June 9th, 2013. Court Theatre is located at 5535 S. Ellis Avenue. For tickets call (773) 753-4472 . Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/the-misanthrope/5478/.