Like all great comedy, Moliere’s The Misanthrope, with its incisive take on social hypocrisy, amorous complications, and ensuing disenchantment, explores humanity’s darker side. Appropriately, sound designer Jim Neil introduces David Grindley’s production with the darker tones of viols, while John Lee Beatty’s setting of ornate and metallic brownish shapes and Michael Walton’s subdued lighting all indicate that Moliere’s levity will dwell to some degree in darkness of spirit.
Grindley maintains a competitive and sometimes hostile undercurrent and he allows hypocrisy and meanness sometimes diluted into mere nastiness to spice Moliere’s text, though some might prefer more sparkle in the language, more indication of the unspoken, more going over the top. Nonetheless, it is a pleasure to hear translator Richard Wilbur’s rhymes spoken with confident emphasis on each speaker’s meaning, to hear these rhymes so ably support the thrust of conversations and the inner momentum of situations. Grindley’s production is full-bodied and unforced, and the comedy arises naturally.
Ben Carlson’s Alceste has a face of substantial crabbiness and brows furrowed deep. He includes “all mean in one dim view,” wants to “break with the whole human race,” and wants to live in “some desert land unfouled by human kind.” According to Alceste, “man’s villainy is too much to bear” and among others Alceste is constantly self-indulgent in his misery. Carlson does disenchantment with a solid, natural ease that makes his plight quite involving.
On the other hand, his pal Philinte, a compelling a charming creation by Juan Chioran, is a man of benign levity and slightly wrinkled elegance who “takes men as they are.” Philinte is a flexible foil for the variety of humanity about him, a peacemaker whose glances bind others together, and although he agrees with Alceste’s view that “man’s a beastly creature” he also asks, “must we abandon their society?” The pairing of Carlson and Chioran is an appealing combination that gives the play its philosophical centre.
Alceste’s love, Celimene, is played with some reserve in social bite by Sara Topham. She is petite and snippy, like a feisty crystal glass, and digs into her dismissals of others with enthusiasm. She loves to verbally demolish others but at times she seems just too nice and not a threat. Kelly Fox as Arsinoe, on the other hand is a worldly woman of well brewed bitchiness who is haughty is her dismissive manner, stabs with nuance and proves to be the most polished game player on the block.
Peter Hutt fills in with distinction for the ailing Brian Bedford as Oronte. This poet of mediocre verse is self-consciously correct, boldly average, surly and unmovable. Hutt is especially funny with his trademark scoops and dips of the text for comic effect. Brian Tree as Dubois adds variety to the show with some effective rough edges in manner and voice. All in all, this production gives the issues presented a compelling human form. Robin Fraser Paye’s striking costumes are each one sewn together into elegance and beauty.