The last time I saw Molière's The Misanthrope, it was gorgeously staged at the Denver Center, with an elegant set adorned with flying cupids; a huge, round, rose-trimmed bed that dominated the stage through the entire second act; and costumes that entirely expressed their wearers' over-the-top personalities, so that the outfits worn by the two fops, Clitandre and Acaste, almost competed in wit and vivacity with Molière's scintillating dialogue, despite Richard Wilbur's brilliant rhymed translation. The Germinal Stage version uses the same translation, but the stage here is tiny, the resources limited — and the interpretation completely different. This Misanthrope is set in modern times and takes place in Aspen, with mentions of the Pitkin County sheriff, the non-fiction-awarding Pulitzer committee, Starbucks and Denver, "where everyone's sincere." There's even a tai chi sequence. The set is clean and pleasant. The costumes, by Sallie Diamond, are clever and exaggerated but hardly sumptuous; no towering wigs, sweeping skirts, bloomers or laced bodices, but rather a pretty young woman lounging in a swimsuit, an older one in jodhpurs carrying a riding crop. And this version works, too — in some senses not as well, but in other ways a touch better. Because, undistracted by ornaments and frippery, our attention is placed entirely on the characters and the text, bringing the satire and the inventive clip-clop of the verse into stronger focus.
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Written in the seventeenth century, The Misanthrope is a comically sardonic look at the aristocratic society of Molière's time. And director Ed Baierlein makes it clear that the human types and hypocrisies Molière mocked are still very much with us. The protagonist, Alceste, is a man devoted to truth-telling. He despises the ordinary niceties with which other people smooth their way through social situations, the small gestures of politeness, the harmless white lies and insincere praise. So when an acquaintance, Oronte, asks for a critique of a poem he's written, Alceste responds in a way that echoes the thoughts many of us have had — but swiftly suppressed — on being shown someone else's attempt at art: "You're under no necessity to compose/Why you should wish to publish, heaven knows/There's no excuse for printing tedious rot/Unless one writes for bread, as you do not/Resist temptation, then, I beg of you/Conceal your pastimes from the public view." Unfortunately, Oronte has power, and Alceste soon finds himself in serious legal trouble.
Ironically, the one person whose faults Alceste cannot see is pretty, dishonest, gossipy and conventional little Celimene, with whom he's desperately in love and who encourages several other suitors while insisting that she's faithful only to him. He is uninterested in the charms of two women who are drawn to him: the much more worthwhile Eliante — played here with a Texas accent — and prudish Arsinoe.
Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through June 10, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com.
The cast thrusts and parries the glistening verse with aplomb, but the primary pleasures of this Germinal Stage production are provided by Terry Burnsed as Alceste and Julie Michalak as his Celimene. Burnsed is shriveled and ill-tempered, his features continually twisted in on themselves as if he'd just tasted something unendurably bitter. He's fun to watch, though, and every now and then you do feel for him a little: He may be a pompous ass, but he does genuinely love Celimene. As for Michalak, she's very hard to describe: pretty and plain simultaneously, with a gorgeous, languid body, a mocking, sharp-featured face, and a slightly artificial-sounding voice that could irritate but mesmerizes instead. Leroy Leonard gives a pleasantly unaffected performance as Alceste's much saner friend, Philinte, and Eric Victor is fun to watch as the sonnet-spouting Oronte. Mary Cates is a sensibly grounded Eliante. Other performances, however, skirt the cartoonish: Randy Diamon and Sam Gilstrap manage to make Acaste and Clitandre's scenes work despite some wild exaggeration; Anne Smith Myers's Arsinoe is one-dimensional; and Marc K. Moran goes completely over the top, drawing out the butler's one big speech for far too long.
Still, this Germinal Stage production proves that a classic can actually gain in humor and relevance when treated as a living piece of writing rather than a museum piece.