A Classy Classic
Nagle Jackson is an intensely visual director. For the Denver Center Theatre Company's The Misanthrope, he utilized the talents of set designer Vicki Smith, lighting designer Peter Maradudin and costumer Andrew V. Yelusich, and the production is flat-out gorgeous. The set is simple and elegant: white alternating with panels of a muted burnt orange; little flying cupids, one holding a candelabra; and, from the second scene on, a great round bed, center stage, trimmed with cloth roses and swags of white fabric. The women's dresses perfectly express their personalities. Eliante's is patterned with sweet spring flowers; the prudish Arsinoe covers her head, neck and body in dark, heavy cloth; vixenish Celimene wears a succession of filmy, fluttering, form-flattering wisps. As for the men: The outfits worn by the two fops, Clitandre and Acaste, almost compete in wit and interest with the actors' performances, although David Ivers and Sam Gregory apply enough oily, insane energy to prevail in the end.
In fact, almost all the acting is impeccable, and Richard Wilbur's rhymed translation is always amusing and sometimes rather touching -- as when Alceste expresses his love for Celimene, or when Eliante muses on what would happen if people in her world were simply more kind to each other.
The plot: The Misanthrope is Alceste (Jamie Horton), who loathes the shallow, falsely flattering, venal world he inhabits and is determined always to tell the truth. One of Alceste's problems is that he's an absolutist, unable to distinguish harmlessly dishonest social discourse from vicious lying and all-out perversions of justice. The other is that he's in love with a lying little bitch, Celimene. When he refuses to praise a sonnet written by a dopey but powerful officer, Alceste brings misfortune upon himself; when he insists that Celimene choose him over her other lovers, he ensures his own unhappiness. The man's integrity is admirable in its way, but he's also a pompous oaf.
With so much interesting new work happening in the metro area -- Bas Bleu's ambitious Angels in America in Fort Collins, Buntport's Kafka on Ice and the Denver Center's own production of John Patrick Shanley's provocative Dirty Story -- it's hard to get excited about Molire. Attending The Misanthrope feels a bit like going to school. Jackson doesn't completely nullify this feeling, but he does keep it at bay. At worst, this production feels like a highly stimulating class assignment, a period piece, but not ossified, not something that belongs in a museum. This is partly owing to the intelligence and beauty of the staging, partly because while the actors and the director respect the text, they also make it their own, finding the emotion beneath the brittle lines.
Although he doesn't skimp on pomposity, Jamie Horton humanizes Alceste and makes you feel for the man. It's true that what you feel is only mild pity, but it's feeling nonetheless.
Ruth Eglsaer poises Celimene somewhere between ravishing beauty and dark, willful anger. She has good vocal range and can bring sound from deep in her chest or have it growl in her throat. But sometimes she seems to be thinking more about her voice and pronunciation than about Celimene's life. As Celimene finds herself caught out and confronted in the second act, however, everything Eglsaer does comes into focus, and from then on her performance is pitch perfect.
Elizabeth Rainer makes Eliante a little thicker of tongue and less fluid in speech than the others, and her sincerity shines in this insincere world. She's the emotional heart of the production, and you really want her to find happiness. Robynn Rodriguez's deft and self-assured Arsinoe has more heft and contour than you'd expect of a character often played as a stock-comic prude. Mark Rubald makes all that can be made of the small part of DuBois.
Bill Christ is the foolish Oronte, arrogant yet red-faced and vulnerable. His recitation of his dreadful sonnet is the comic high point of the entire production. You really should buy a ticket just to see what Christ can do with the word "hope."
Jackson's ending is wonderful in concept, but it didn't quite work on the night I saw the show, partly because the audience insisted on applauding prematurely and ruining the timing -- not once but two or three times. Nonetheless, this witty, elegant, touched-with-feeling production is as good a Misanthrope as I can imagine.
Critic's note: Costumer/designer Andrew V. Yelusich passed away on October 28.
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