Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Misanthrope by Moliere (Shafter Ford Theater)

A nouveau riche attempts to acquire high culture and makes a fool of himself. A health-obsessed hypochondriac falls for a series of quack doctors and their remedies. A religious huckster preys on foolish aristocracy to obtain money and sexual favors. A young, snarky hipster mocks everything and anything, but finds nothing to believe in - not even his own misanthropy.

Are these plots from the late Twentieth Century perhaps? Quite the contrary. They come from the Seventeenth Century comédies Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme [The Would-be Gentleman], Le Malade Imaginaire [The Hypochondriac], Tartuffe, and Le Misanthrope, by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, commonly known by his stage name, Molière.

The above is quoted from my first blog post on Molière, wherein I examined The School for Husbands. I have loved Moliere ever since I read Tartuffe as part of my high school literature curriculum. That scathing indictment of religious hucksters and foolish people who fall for their smarm seems ever-so-relevant today. In fact, most of Molière’s best known works have aged extremely well: human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the last 400 years. We still have the same weaknesses, and we still seem to go for the same charlatans and fall for the same fallacies.

I have seen three different Molière plays live over the years. The Empty Space did a production of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme years ago, with Bob Kempf in the title role. (He was hilarious.) Theatricum Botanicum presented an adaptation (by Constance Congdon) of Le Malade Imaginaire three years ago, and we took the kids to that one. And, also a while back, our local university did a marvelous version of Le Misanthrope. Basically, if I see Molière on tap at a reasonably local theater, I’m there.

So, when I saw that long-time Bakersfield College theater professor turned Anglican minister Randy Messick was directing Le Misanthrope in Shafter, I knew I had to find a way to go.

This was my first time at this particular theater. It is fairly new, built in the last couple of years, and (presumably) financed by the Starrh family - who must have spent quite a pretty penny over the years on the Colours Festival (I’ve played in the orchestra for that for several years) and other arts-related stuff in Shafter. However, it did (at least in this production) feature local actors that I had seen elsewhere. If Messick is involved, I am sure the artistic values will be high.

So, about this production. Unlike the CSUB version, which used a contemporary setting, more or less (Hipster coffee shop culture…), this one went for the original time period and costumes. The music was slightly anachronistic, using Mozart rather than Lully (Molière’s original collaborator.) But it actually fit pretty well.

I am not sure of the specifics, but illness led to the lead character, Alceste, being played by local thespian and teacher Kevin Ganger reading off the script. I am assuming he was a last-minute fill in. Reading is never ideal, but Ganger is a pro, and nailed the cynical and obnoxious tone just fine anyway.

 Philinte (Nolan Long), Alceste (Kevin Ganger), Eliante (Shelbe McClain)

As Alceste’s best friend, the likeable everyman Philinte, Nolan Long brought an earnestness and equanimity that contrasted nicely with Alceste’s misanthropy. Long has been a regular at TES, and has shown a nice range from comedic bit parts to earnest leads to villains. I’m always happy to see his name in the cast.

Celemene is the main female character. She is frivilous, flirtations, and utterly untrustworthy. She does her best to string along multiple guys, telling each that he is her true love, while doing the same for the others. Alceste, naturally, is dead gone for her - opposites attract in this case. I think Karisma Normandin has been in the cast of something or another local - in a bit part - but she was fantastic in this role. Her over-the-top costume and her over-the-top Betty Boopishness was hilarious.

Celemene (Karisma Normandin) and Oronte (John Spitzer)

The cast was filled out by a few others. John Spitzer was Oronte, the young social climber with the ludicrous wig which strongly resembled the Pointy Haired Boss from Dilbert. Scott Deaton played Clitandre, the smarmy and elderly aristocrat with a bit too much French effeminacy for his own good. Shelbe McClain - another versatile local theater regular - took the role of Eliante, the sensible woman who is invisible to Alceste, but the perfect match for Philinte. She gets some of the absolute best lines in the play, as the observer (the Chorus, perhaps) of the other characters’ foibles. Leslie Aldridge played the prudish Arsinoe (complete with ludicrous prosthetic nose) to good effect. Arsinoe is one of the funniest characters, as her self-righteous (if somewhat accurate) condemnation of Celemene is matched only by her imperfectly suppressed sexual voracity. A couple of servants and officers had bit parts as well.

 Celemene and Arsinoe (Leslie Aldridge)

 Eliante, Clitandre (Scott Deaton), Alceste, Celemene

There are some outstanding lines in this play. I wish I could quote at length, but I really prefer that people read the whole thing. Or, better yet, go see a Molière play live. I am not sure which translation Messick used as the basis for his adaptation (ALL productions you are likely to see have been adapted, as the originals required songs, ballet numbers, and other stuff that rather interrupts the plot…) but I am using my own Franklin hardback version, translated by Donald M. Frame. One thing I did note was that the parts of Oronte and Acaste have been combined and remixed with Clitandre - which works fine, considering they are both young noblemen seeking Celemene’s love. Here is a good example of the wit.

Clitandre: You glow with satisfaction, dear Marquis:
You’re free from worriment and full of glee.
But do you think you’re seeing things aright
In taking such occasion for delight?

Acaste (Oronte): My word! When I regard myself, I find
No reason for despondency of mind.
I’m rich, I’m young, I’m of a family
With some pretension to nobility…
My wit is adequate, my taste discerning,
To judge and treat all subjects without learning…

This is just one of the many witty exchanges in the play. One more is worth quoting here. Alceste is trying to convince the others that if you truly love someone, you will see - and try to correct - their every fault. Yep, that sure sounds like a plan for marital bliss, right? The far more sensible Eliante understands the truth far better.

Acaste (Oronte): Her charms and grace are evident to me;
But any faults I fear I cannot see.

Alceste: I see them all; she knows the way I feel;
My disapproval I do not conceal.
Loving and flattering are worlds apart;
The least forgiving is the truest heart;
And I would send these soft suitors away,
Seeing they dote on everything I say,
And that their praise, complaisant to excess,
Encourages me in my foolishness.

Celemene: In short, if we’re to leave it up to you,
All tenderness in love we must eschew;
And love can only find its true perfection
In railing at the objects of our affection.

Eliante: Love tends to find such laws somewhat austere,
And lover always brag about their dear;
Their passion never sees a thing to blame,
And everything is lovely in their flame:
They find perfection in her every flaw,
And speak of her with euphemistic awe.
The pallid one’s the whitest jasmine yet;
The frightful dark one is a sweet brunette;
The spindly girl is willowy and free;
The fat one bears herself with majesty;
The dowdy one, who’s ill endowed as well,
Becomes a careless and neglectfull belle;
The giantess is a divinity;
The dwarf, a heavenly epitome;
With princesses the proud one can compete;
The tricky one has wit; the dull one’s a sweet;
The tireless talker’s charmingly vivacious;
The mote girl modest, womanly, and gracious.
Thus every man who loves beyond compare
Loves even the defects of his lady fair.

That manages to be both hilarious, witty, satirical, and sweet at the same time.

I mentioned the costumes briefly. These were made by a local artisan, Jennifer Keller at Fantasy Frocks. As such, they were ludicrous and delightful, totally overboard and perfect. Between the dresses with an obscene number of bows and the foppish wigs, the production was aided by the costumes.

I should also mention the running gag where the servant girl (Basque, played by Cheyenne Reyes) used a different percussion instrument to announce guests each time. The bell to start with - normal enough. But then, a triangle, various cymbals, castanets, drums, and more. It was a nice humorous touch for those who paid attention.

Before the play, Messick came out to talk briefly about it, and asked if anyone had seen Molière before. I think he was surprised to hear that Amanda and I had see three live productions before this one, and were quite familiar with Molière. I am sad that he isn’t better known. He was indeed the French Shakespeare, and, if his language wasn’t as revolutionary and profound, his grasp of human nature and eye for the details of hypocrisy set him apart as one of the all time greats. Seriously, if you get the chance, go see one of his plays. And if not, read one. You might be surprised that, under the 17th Century surface, Molière’s satire seems as if it could be written in our own times.

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