Moliere was one of the great practitioners of "The Theater of Poverty." I'm not speaking of his hurried flight from Paris and his creditors when his fledgling stage career crashed and burned. And it's quite true that when -- after years of developing his craft in the boonies -- he returned with his troupe to Paris, he became a favorite of Louis Quatorze, the Sun King. So where is "The Theater of Poverty?" In Versailles? In the theater of le Palais Royal?
Precisely. What Moliere mastered in his difficult apprenticeship was the oldest and simplest form of theater. There is a text and there is a troupe of talented actors. Nothing else is required. You feel Moliere and his cronies could come into a room, push the furniture against the walls and do the play -- just as Plautus and Co. wowed 'em with farces on street corner platforms in ancient Rome, and comedia troupes improvised their buffoonery in the eternal city several hundred years later.
Moliere's economy is one of means. After one of his plays, you leave the theater thinking every other appurtenance besides a good story, well-told and well-acted, is extraneous. At least, I did recently, after enjoying The Misanthrope at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
NOLA Project -- the young, inventive troupe who have taken to livening up our summers -- offered this French classic as its second show of the season. I have to admit I was a bit worried about whether the NOMA venue would work. I had forgotten how good Moliere is and I had also underestimated the NOLA Projectiles -- who landed delightfully on target.
The misanthrope of the title is an impulsive, intransigent young man named Alceste (Peter McElligott). He's infuriated by hypocrisy of any kind -- by which he means all the little or large falsifications that go under the name of civility. Politeness be damned! Alceste will speak his mind -- no matter how unpleasant the results. Philinte (Sean Glazebrook), his friend, disagrees -- not with his appraisal of human nature, but with his combative refusal to be diplomatic. Furthermore, he finds it amusing that Alceste is madly in love with the devilish coquette Celimene (Alexis Jacknow). In fact, the two friends are having their quarrel in Celimene's sitting room -- which Alceste hopes soon to empty of her crowd of other suitors.
Soon the plot thickens. Oronte (A. J. Allegra), a well connected man-about-town, who is one of those rival suitors, shows up and -- after a grandiloquent effusion of friendship for Alceste -- proposes to read a love sonnet he's written. Alceste trashes this literary effort and wins himself yet another virulent enemy.
On to the main bout of the evening: the tempestuous courtship of Celimene by Alceste. While he is intolerant of anything that offends his principles, he can't resist her. Celimene is that most mysterious of creatures, the femme fatale. You half feel that she is a mystery even to herself. Charm comes so easy to her. Her wit can be devastating. But what does she really feel? Does she herself even know?
By some miracle, Moliere not only gets these complications of character going, he makes them funny. One hilarious bit that several characters employ is to respond to accusations by totally copping to the charge. They defend themselves by insisting wildly on their guilt!
One of the remarkable and -- in my experience, very French -- aspects of the world Moliere creates is the way the brittle falsity of politeness is counterbalanced by a bracing frankness in intimate emotional exchanges. Philinte, for example, tells Celimene's lovely cousin Eliante (Scarlett Birmingham) that he knows she's also soft on Alceste, but that if Alceste rejects her, he would be honored to become her husband.
This lively Misanthrope (which was updated to contemporary Paris) featured Richard Wilbur's tangy verse translation. James Tripp directed the show. A tip of the hat to Janet Shea for her turn as Arsinoe and to Will Connolly and Andrew Larimer as other rival suitors. Michelle Bart, Nick Kocher and James Bartelle aptly filled out the cast.
In New Orleans, we don't get much opportunity to see the classics. Even our admitted love of the frivolous doesn't explain this lack. There are, after all, masterworks of frivolity -- not that The Misanthrope falls into that category. A deep melancholy lies at the heart of the play, though neither Moliere nor the NOLA Project felt the need to insist on that dark side. But it's there and it's a part of the richness of the comedy.
The NOLA Project is currently staging Cloud Nine at NOCCA/Riverfront through Aug. 27. 304-3753.
- In The Misanthrope, Philinte (Sean Glazebrook) hopes for a chance at Eliante's (Scarlett Bermingham) affections.