Moliere's buffoonish farce "The Miser" is currently being staged by the Vagabond Players in their Fells Point theater through March 22.
The 17th century French satirist's merciless wit and wonderful power of ridicule made him the greatest comic dramatist of all time.
Character is the basis of Moliere's comedic works, which convey lessons of morality and conduct. But his universal characters tend to be types rather than individuals and that is the crux of his mocking, socially satirical style.
The wonderful qualities of boldly lampooning the pretentious, the false, the evil and the hypocritical aspects of society are evidenced in all Moliere's plays including the one about the mean spirited old miser, Harpagon, who plays with gold.
Moliere's protagonists are usually based on a consuming passion. In this case it is avarice that obsesses the classic fool.
His greatest joy is in accumulating money. His greatest fear is losing it.
He has no faith in banks so he conceals it about the house, putting the bulk of his fortune in a box buried in the garden.
The prospect of something happening to his horde is a constant nightmare.
The plot revolves around the romantic actions of his children, Elise and Cleante. Both love penniless people and both are faced with the dreaded possibility of loveless (although wealthy) unions arranged by their greedy father for his own profit.
To make matters worse Harpagon encouraged by the scheming matchmaker Frosine plans to wed Mariane, the object of Cleante's worshiping affection. However, it is a mystery why the grasping Harpagon wishes to marry the poor young maiden who is without a franc or any kind of worthy dowry. (A flaw, perhaps, in Moliere's excellent work?)
Elise is enamored of Valere, her father's steward who fawningly placates the old man in hopes of winning him over.
The new translation by Albert Bermel used by the Vagabond Players is rather prosaic and a bit bawdy but pretty mirthful nevertheless.
Farce is no simple form of theater. It commands a complex style of acting that is highly disciplined in order to achieve the all important timing that is connected with the proper delivery of the playwright's lines.
Director Ann Mainolfi has incorporated a lot of physicality in her version of Moliere's work. But she has overdone it with too much low comedy interaction that often borders on the vulgar.
Moliere may utilize a broad comedy style in some of his works but he is never vulgar. The characterizations are the thing and so is his priceless dialogue. These assets should be developed to a sophisticated high comedy level. All the actors must employ this same style or the results will be frustratingly uneven.
That is the case with the Vagabond production. Some of the characters carry off the roles with panache while others are hopelessly inexperienced. The latter are the ones who deaden the pace and drop what should be a ball of rollicking humor.
Vincent Kimball is Harpagon and he adequately conveys the stinginess of the character but without its rich essence. Kimball is too low key, playing on one level throughout with little change in facial expression or inner motivation.
Celia Rocca often delights as Frosine who wraps herself around Harpagon like a sleek, purring, oversexed cat. But where others underplay woefully, Rocca has a tendency to overplay, thus losing her essential timing and momentum.
John Compher as the rascally Commissioner ("Honesty is the worst policy") well represents the sardonic spirit of Moliere's piece.
Anne Greene is rather convincing as Elise and Mike Moran is pleasantly humorous (although he stumbled over his lines) as the servant Jacques.
Craig R. Newell gives a fair performance as Valere but Robert Petr as Cleante and John Zerolnick as a thieving servant fail to convince. Liz Tyler is a colorless Mariane and Ed Perry an unsure Anselme.
The attractive period costumes were designed by Gayanne and the fine 17th century set was designed by Ferd Mainolfi.
NOTEWORTHY: The Baltimore theater community has lost one of its outstanding theater artists and supporters, Richard Duncan Johannes Byrd, who peacefully passed away at his home last Saturday. He will long be remembered not only for his talents as actor, director and theatrical entrepreneur but for his (and there were many) humanitarian accomplishments.