Review: “The Misanthrope”

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Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through June 9
Tickets: $45-$65
Phone: 773-753-4472

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

We’re conditioned to believe that classic comedies should have happy endings, but Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” doesn’t fit the mold. At least not on the surface.

Rather than interpreting the play to suit our expectations, Court Theatre’s production directed by Charles Newell wholeheartedly embraces the fact that it doesn‘t. Part of a Moliere Festival that also includes “Tartuffe” (June 20 to July 14) and inaugurates the interdisciplinary Center for Classic Theatre designed to bring together performance, scholarship, and community outreach, the show goes way over the top, creating a surreal world of conflicting extremes populated by temperamental overgrown children. 

None is more petulant and sullen than Erik Hellman’s Alceste, the misanthrope of the title. Railing against the hypocrisy of an age in which people laud each other to their faces only to lambaste each other behind their backs, he’s determined to tell the unvarnished truth as he sees it or withdraw completely from society. These principles are tested when the well-connected Oronte (a formidable A.C. Smith) solicits his honest opinion of a poem he’s written, and Alceste – even realizing that what the man really wants is praise – lets him know, in the most sarcastic terms, that it’s terrible, resulting in a lawsuit.

Problem is, Alceste is in love with Celimene (Grace Gealey), whose behavior epitomizes everything he detests. The consummate coquette, she entertains her foppish suitors, Acaste (Travis Turner) and Clitandre (Michael Pogue), by brilliantly satirizing those they know at court, only to do the same to them when they’re not around. Alceste’s idea of courtship is to reproach, reprove, rebuke, and try to reform her – with predictable results. Never were two people less suited for each other.

Newell heightens the absurdity with hyper-theatrical staging, so that we have the sense that everyone’s playing a part in an elaborate game. John Culbert’s scenic design for Celimene‘s boudoir is replete with rich woods and metallic surfaces and features a central platform with a sort of fainting couch surrounded by a sumptuous mechanical curtain and past that is a moat. Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes are worthy of a fantasy brothel: They’re all black lace, velvet and other lush fabrics embroidered and embossed in gold and fur, with some vaguely military accents and lots of skin showing on both the men and women. I wish a bit more had been done to distinguish among the characters (wouldn’t Alceste dress differently?), but that’s a minor point. Keith Parham’s lighting and Andre Pluess and Josh Horvath’s sound design spotlight the artificiality of the scenes of poetry reading and performance.

Except for Hellman and Elizabeth Ledo, who portrays a couple of servants, the ensemble is entirely African American. This isn’t color-blind casting, and I’m not sure what purpose it serves, except to allow references to things like Alceste’s blue eyes and ethnic-specific jokes and gestures, such as the finger snaps dispensed liberally by the prude Arsinoe (Allen Gilmore having a ball in drag) as she exposes Celimene’s duplicity.    
 
The key that makes “The Misanthrope” a comedy, despite its darkness, is that everyone gets pretty much what he or she deserves. Alceste ends up going off alone; Celimene is taken down a notch and loses her audience, and the self-absorbed suitors are rejected, as is Arsinoe.

That leaves only Alceste’s friend, Philinte (a very engaging Kamal Angelo Bolden) and Celimene’s cousin, Eliante (the quiet and charming Patrese D. McClain). They are the two normative characters advocating reason and moderation, and for them, this turns out to be a classic romantic comedy, something Newell’s direction makes clear. Each time the self-absorbed Alceste, frustrated with Celimene or jealous of her suitors, turns to Eliante, who he knows is attracted to him, for love and support, we see ever-loyal Philinte patiently stand aside, but the pain in his eyes is obvious, as is his longing for the young lady. When the Misanthrope finally mopes off leaving the field to his worthier friend, and Eliante seems more than satisfied, it’s enough of a happy ending for me.