BWW Reviews: A Modern Moliere Plays at Vagabond Theater
I really don't like restoration comedies. I find them didactic, repetitive, obvious and really not that...comedic. So, with resignation I headed to the Vagabond Players in Fells Point to witness their production of Moliere's The Misanthrope. And here's what happened - I enjoyed it.
The Misanthrope is a classic comedy of manners that satirizes the behaviors of aristocratic society. In this case, our main character, Alceste (played with conviction by Eric Stein), believes that everyone should be forthright and truthful in all their dealings. "How else are people to behave," he is asked early in the play. "I'd have them be sincere," replies Alceste thus alienating everyone and rejecting the common courtesies of polite society. He is thwarted in his philosophy by his own heart because he has fallen in love with the flighty and flirty Celimene (played expertly by Laura Malkus). The story unfolds as Alceste battles to win Celimene's love as she toys with every man who passes her way. Classic comedy of manners.
Two things make the Vagabond's production of The Misanthrope very enjoyable. One: the actors are in modern clothing. All the restoration comedies I've seen have been staged in high French fashion of the 1600's - exaggerated and colorful men's apparel with ruffles and flounces everywhere, and elaborate costumes for the women with ribbon attachments everywhere. Vagabond's actors are in modern apparel - suits and ties for men; feminine dresses for the women. It worked for me because it stripped away the high fashion element of the story which I find distracting in Restoration Theater. Instead, surprise, I could concentrate on the words. Written in verse, it would be so easy to make the lines sing-song along from scene to scene, but this cast makes them relevant and real. Without the distraction of period costumes, the words become clearer and the story line more engaging.
The second accomplishment of this production is that the ensemble clicked. I mean that they flowed in and out of each other's lines effortlessly and moved through the staging as naturally as if they'd done it 100 times making the show very believable and very charming. Alceste's one and only friend Philinte (played with true compassion by Rich Espey) tells him that "...by being frank you've earned the reputation of a crank" but you gleam how painful it is for him that his friend is viewed this way. When Alceste chastises Celimene on her shameless ways, she responds with a sincere, "Oh, Pooh," that made me laugh out loud. Nevertheless you can actually feel her aggravation at Alceste that in a not so polite society would have been expressed in something stronger than, "Oh, Pooh."
This team of actors works well together. Extremely well. So with their help I found that restoration comedy has some significant things to say about people, relationships and one's own behavior.
A special note on Daniel Douek's character, Oronte. He attempts several times to read his love sonnet about Celimene but stops and starts as he explains what his sonnet hopes to achieve. His pacing and timing are spot on and this scene is the best in the play.
The Misanthrope runs through September 29 and tickets can be purchased at www.vagabondplayers.org. The Vagabond Players has the distinction of being the oldest little theater in America. Established in 1916, the Vagabond Players continue to bring local, affordable, quality theater to Baltimore. Ticket prices range from $10 - $18.