`The Miser' at Center Stage pays off

New translation of Moliere classic is often deliciously over the top

January 15, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In case there's any doubt about the title character's fascination, obsession, indeed, infatuation with money, consider what happens when Harpagon and his gold are parted in Center Stage's wildly exuberant rendition of Moliere's The Miser.

Discovering that his beloved cash box has been stolen, Tom Mardirosian's Harpagon is initially heard wailing offstage. After he appears, he beats one of his hands with the other, as if suspecting the right has robbed the left. He refers to his missing lucre as his lost love; he lies on the floor feigning death from a broken heart; he rouses himself slightly, adopts a fetal position and sucks his thumb.

And that's nothing compared to the raving that erupts when he suspects the guilty party may be a member of the audience.

This impetuous scene - which holds more surprises than I'm going to reveal here - is the most delirious in a production whose zany ingredients begin with Riccardo Hernandez's over-the-top set design and continue all the way through the curtain call.

Using a lively, highly accessible new translation by Center Stage associate dramaturg James Magruder, Baltimore-born director David Schweizer zeroes in on the more outrageous aspects of Moliere's 1668 satire of greed. Chief among these are expressions of physical longing - Harpagon's for his cash, and his grown children's for their secret sweethearts (the production opens with his daughter, Elise, and her paramour, Valere, caught in a daringly steamy moment).

Harpagon's greed is the reason his daughter and son have kept their romances hidden. Valere, the object of Elise's affections, is masquerading as one of Harpagon's servants, just to be near her. Meanwhile, Harpagon's son, Cleante, has fallen in love with a nearly destitute young woman named Mariane.

To make matters worse, Harpagon not only plans to marry Elise off to a wealthy aristocrat who has agreed to wed her without a dowry, but Harpagon has also decided to marry Mariane himself. Do children owe a parent any allegiance under such circumstances? Moliere certainly didn't think so, and translator/adaptor Magruder heightens the stakes by emphasizing the psychological tensions and rivalries between parent and children.

Among the production's more intriguing psychological insights is that Mardirosian's Harpagon is the most childish character on stage. Totally self-absorbed, he's a bully one minute and a whimpering infant the next (occasionally overdoing the cuteness). In contrast, when their wishes are thwarted, Kate Guyton's determined Elise and Charles Daniel Sandoval's foppish but resolute Cleante behave like adults; instead of merely reacting to misfortune, they take an active role in thwarting it.

To outwit the old man, Elise and Cleante join forces not only with Valere (played with mischievous glee by Trent Dawson) and Mariane (demure Christian Corp), but also with Frosine, a matchmaker portrayed by June Gable as an irrepressibly cunning opportunist. Harpagon is no match for these folks, whose actions are fueled by equal measures of love and revenge.

At the same time, it's indicative of the thoroughness of director Schweizer's interpretation that the production's design never lets the characters - or the audience - forget the extent of Harpagon's avarice. Price tags dangle from just about everything on designer Hernandez's packing-crate-laden set - the gilt-trimmed, broken-down furniture; a gigantic, empty picture frame; an enormous gold medallion, suspended from the flies. Harpagon will sell anything for the right price; it's surprising his children and servants don't sport price tags. Instead, costume designer David Zinn clothes Harpagon and his daughter in patches and two of his servants share one set of livery (one wears the shirt; the other, the pants).

From the trappings to the performances, this is a production that takes bold chances without ever losing sight of Moliere's original intent. The new (Magruder's occasional updated and localized references) blends delightfully with the old (such commedia dell'arte archetypes as a duped old man and his slapstick servants). And the result is a Miser in which more is always more - what could be more fitting for a play about greed?

The Miser

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through Feb. 8

Tickets: $10-$55

Call: 410-332-0033

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