Review: “The Misanthrope” (Piccolo Theatre)

Piccolo Theatre presents The MisanthropeShow: The Misanthrope

Company: Piccolo Theatre

Venue: Piccolo Theatre (600 Main Street, Evanston)

Die Roll: 13

As one walks into the Piccolo Theatre space, one can’t help but notice Sarah Lewis’ set design.  The stage in the particularly small space is in an in-the-round configuration.  There are two modified chaise style couches in the center of the room that form a sort of yin and yang circle through which is it evident that the action of the show will flow.  On the East wall of the space, splitting the audience seating in twain, is a multi-level wet bar which makes it clear that social drinking will play a major part in this show.  The design is pleasant and indicates an upper-class domain.  But the primary thing that captures the attention of everyone who enters the space is a squarish, white bowl that holds over a quart of Skittles (side note to my wife who doesn’t do imperial measurements: “That’s about a liter, dear”).  That bowl of Skittles becomes a star of this play long before the lights come up on the action.  Audience members comment to each other about it across the floor.  Loudly.  Over the twenty minutes I sat in the space prior to the show, I eventually watched just about every member of the audience get up, go to the concession stand/box office, and return with a box of Skittles and/or Reese’s Pieces (I assume that some people prefer their small round candy to be of a non-fruit variety).  I was not exempt from this behavior.  I was amazed at this bit of human behavior.  There was an entire show prior to the real show that is all to blame on the not-so-subtle suggestive action of a bowl of candy.

Anyway… As things get moving, the bowl of candy does play a much more passive role in this play.  Characters occasionally nab a couple of pieces and pop them in their mouths between lines of dialog, just as anyone in any normal setting would.  It makes for beautifully natural moments that are seamlessly incorporated into the play. Within this play there are many of those moments which capture the comfortable and habitual bits of real life that put a very real spin onto Moliere’s satiric comedy of manners from the 17th century.

Director Michael D. Graham clearly paid attention to all the little details in this production, and that level of focused care makes the comedy ring true despite a complicated script by Martin Crimp that embraces Moliere’s original verse structure but updates the piece to the modern era.  Instead of the intrigues of a set of Marquises in France at a time 100+ years before Napoleon, we get a set of actors, writers, and socialites who hover around the world of London’s West End.  The names, with the exception of the titular misanthropic character of Alceste (Ben Muller), have all been changed.  There is no Clitandre here.  Instead we get Alexander (Joe Beal).

As a cultural translation Crimp’s script is brilliant.  The rhythm and tone of the rhyme scheme is spot on in mimicking the scansion of Moliere’s own patter.  But that doesn’t at all hamper the inclusion of cell phones, and references to current societal conveniences.  Current vernacular swirls about fluidly, gracefully, and (when appropriate) coarsely.

One character does not make the leap from the original work into this one.  Alceste’s manservant who traditionally provides much of the farcical comedy has no corresponding character here.  And that puts the onus directly on the other characters to bring the funny.  And they do. But, it isn’t the same funny.  But, then, it also isn’t the same century, and our view of the play’s content differs in this day and age.  Sure, Alceste claims to hate all mankind.  But, we aren’t following the escapade of a strict moralist who suffers the weakness of having fallen in love.  No.  We watch as a self-righteous, emotionally abusive, jerk gets his due… in due time.  Instead of being surrounded by buffoonery, he interacts directly with his world and vicious, rapier-like exchanges cut him as often as he strikes others with his wit.

Muller rises admirably to the challenge of playing a character that has to carry the show while being primarily a one-note melody.  The character doesn’t really grow throughout the play, nor does he have much depth to him, but Muller makes Alceste come alive in a way that brings more to the stage than was originally on the page.  I have known the man that Muller plays.  He is familiar to me.  It isn’t comfortable to watch as Muller’s character expresses his need to control his girlfriend Jennifer (the Célimène analog, played quite convincingly by Callie Stephens).  And it is that discomfort that rings true.  Muller’s Alceste isn’t a good person.  He is trying to be one, but his true nature is so inherently flawed that even his best efforts are completely misguided. We can empathize with him a little, but only just enough to make him real, rather than a cartoon.  He never becomes the one for whom we are cheering.

The verse lines flow off of Muller’s tongue so naturally that one might think that he often speaks thus in real life.  In fact, this is a trait that is shared throughout this cast.  Not every actor approaches the rhymes in the same manner, but all of them do it as naturally as if talking in poetry was an integral part of all English communication.

There are times when the show gets dark in its message.  This is fitting, as it is the consequence of the world into which the play has been translated.  I really think it works.

One of the first plays that I worked on just after college was another “The Misanthrope” which was of a much more traditional bent.  The play has a sentimental spot in my heart, but I never really enjoyed the play itself all that much.  That is no longer the case.  This new translation and Graham’s cast’s realization of it has greatly raised the play’s place in my esteem.  This is now a morality play for a new age that addresses something much more relevant than the silliness of court life in the 1600s.

The script is clever.  The actors are stellar.  The direction is painstakingly exact and insightful.  There isn’t a thing that I can say against this production.  Man!  I want some Skittles.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  A Moliere translation for a new generation. This play matters.

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”