Misanthropic


Last night, with Friends Kate and Patrick, I went to see, of all things, a production of Moliere's The Misanthrope. ("Of all things," because of my recent entry on eschewing email.) I say "Moliere's," but that not quite where all credit is due when it comes to this production. The play was reinterpreted--as is often New York Theatre Workshop's wont--through Messrs. Tony Harrison (translating playwright) and Ivo van Hove (director). I knew this going in, and feared the worst. "Deconstruction" is one of my least favorite words, and I feel a similar hostility toward the process in most cases. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to discover that the interpretation didn't fudge with the language in any grotesque ways. We still had rhyming couplets. We still had scene partners, and all that good (albeit old-fashioned) stuff.

I loved the show overall. The only moments it really lost me were a couple of scenes in which some of the actors playing supporting characters (Moliere is so great about every character getting a good bit in) seemed to make a choice to alternate suddenly between two volume levels: conversational and very VERY LOUD. These moments, though distinct and perplexing, were few, and for the most part the show was exceedingly interesting and accessible at the same time, which is no mean feat. The set design and choreography were striking, and may have overshadowed the acting, had the leads not been so bold within them. The space was like a minimalist/brutalist architect's waiting room, with fluorescent lighting and grey walls, encased on three sides in smoked glass. Up center were three flat-screen monitors rigged side-by-side and set in the back wall to function as a unit. Throughout the action of the play, the set was gradually (though occasionally also suddenly) besmoot with food stuff and garbage, which was just marvelous. There's nothing like the unconventional use of food products on stage.

There's a bit of an informal axiom bandied about by theatre types regarding Chekhov's full-length plays, particularly The Cherry Orchard. It has to do with everyone loving to inform and remind one another that good ol' Chekhov called it a COMEDY, and that the play is usually taken too seriously. Well, I'm no authority on Chekhov, God knows. God also knows I'm not acredited as a Moliere expert. However. I would like to posit that, in the converse of the Chekhov axiom, Moliere rarely gets taken seriously enough. It seems to me that he wrote with incredible humor and lightness (not to mention rhythm), but that he was writing about very serious things and, in some cases, unanswerable questions of the human condition. So I like my Moliere with plenty of physical humor, yes, and as many dirty jokes as possible, but I also like at least the occasional bitter-sweet moment of truth. Think Charlie Chaplin. Give your clown a moment or two to cry.

This production of The Misanthrope struck what I thought was a wonderful balance between elements of madness and melancholy. If anything, it leaned a little more in the direction of serious theatre than I would have, but I think this is an important part of why it will leave a lasting impression on me. When I saw it last, in college, this play made me feel as though the misanthropic character, Alceste, was completely irrational. In this, though he acts more irrationally, I was convinced of his argument against hypocrisy. The party scene, which Alceste interrupts, was so familiar to me with its group seated around a meal of take-out food, cell phones and laptops flipping in and out, and talk of people not in the room. When he brings it to a halt, laying himself across the table, I thought, "Thank God." And somehow, when his tirade against them erupted into an incredible mess of food, mostly smeared all over himself, I was still with him.

One of the ideas that this interpretation in particular seemed to bring across was that there is no cure for hypocrisy. It's a part of human nature, be it a legitimate survival tool, or absurd self-defense, and a tool for ingratiation. Like hatred or greed, however, it needs to be brought to bear under more virtuous impulses, like love or charity. Or sincerity.

And don't buy an iPhone.
 
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