As clear as a bell

`Misanthrope' rings true to today's sensibilities

Theater Review

October 08, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Moliere's The Misanthrope is about a man who believes he sees the world with absolute clarity, a man who is a confirmed truth-teller.

So it's particularly gratifying to report that director Penny Metropulos' production at Washington's Arena Stage is crystal clear and that Ranjit Bolt's translation is highly accessible, retaining the spirit of the 17th-century French original while infusing the text with just enough updated language to keep it fresh. ("Be afraid, be very afraid!" the title character, Alceste, warns the woman he loves.)

The clarity begins with designer William Bloodgood's set, whose primary feature is a floor painted with three portraits of Louis XIV and huge, framed details of the ears, nose and eyes. This playing field serves as a constant reminder that: 1) the influence of the court is inescapable, and 2) someone is always listening, seeing or sniffing out what's going on.

In 21st-century America, paintings of eyes and ears might symbolize modern surveillance devices, but in 17th-century France, they represent, as Bloodgood has put it, "the basic elements of gossip."

Alceste abhors gossip and in our first view of him, director Metropulos makes it immediately evident that he has no place in a society fueled by it. In a wordless preface, Michael Emerson's Alceste makes his entrance in the midst of a stageful of elegant dancing couples. Awkward and partner-less, he's out of step from the start, and after the couples exit, he's left behind alone, spinning in dismay.

Emerson, whose delivery of Bolt's rhymed script veers toward the self-conscious and sing-song-y, is the production's sole letdown. The problem is primarily one of modulation. He starts out so filled with righteous indignation at all the sycophancy, hypocrisy and insincerity around him that his emotional thermometer is unable to register much higher as the play progresses.

And the mercury does need room to rise since Alceste turns out to be a tad hypocritical himself - he's in love with a woman named Celimene, who is one of the most unrepentant gossips in Paris.

Nance Williamson portrays this viper-tongued lady as a woman of intelligence, if questionable judgment. She loves to hear herself talk, especially when she's imitating acquaintances behind their backs, a parlor trick she performs in front of an audience of flatterers. It's a dangerous practice, albeit one that might qualify her for a political career.

Even Alceste doesn't understand why he loves this hopeless flirt - though, of course, this is Moliere's way of puncturing the character's pomposity. The marked disparity between Williamson's composure and Emerson's perpetual exasperation makes for some very funny encounters; she's as unrufflable as he's constitutionally ruffled.

In contrast to these examples of excess, John Leonard Thompson and Heather Robison are the souls of reasonableness as Alceste's patient friend and Celimene's sweet-tempered cousin. And Patrick Husted is a hoot as the most narcissistic, affected courtier in a court of preening peacocks.

The action is fluid and fast-paced under the direction of Metropulos, who is associate artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (which is also home to set designer Bloodgood and Deborah M. Dryden, who created the ornate costumes). At times it seemed as if the direction placed the audience in the position of eavesdroppers, as if to suggest that we are all potential gossips and rumormongers.

Arena has produced many other Moliere classics over the years, but this is the theater's first stab at The Misanthrope. Even with reservations about the lead performance, it's an effervescent evening.

Misanthrope

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. selected Sundays and noon selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Nov. 3

Tickets: $34-$57

Call: 202-488-3300

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