This is a pretty cool way to present the Misanthrope. The production's vague, generic hipster motif hangs a lampshade on the avant-garde aesthetic one sort of expects from a Moliere play. The costumes and makeup fit their respective wearers, silently telegraphing a bit about each of them before a single line of verse gets uttered. The house band is effective, playing its way in and out of the story with a nudge and a wink at musical narrators like Steve Zissou's Seu Jorge and Mary's Jonathan Richman. Moliere's original story holds up over time, and the players in this florid, eyeliner-tinged makeover really seem to get it, and make it their own.
This is a very minimalist production. There isn't much scenery for the actors to chew on the stripped down set, but when they can, do they ever chew. They chew in the best possible way. In fact, their chewing is integral to the Misanthrope's overall presentation: This is a highly stylized reboot of what was already an exercise in exaggeration, so it makes sense for the whole cast to hover somewhere between run-of-the-mill flamboyant and Brian Blessed.
Sam Pearson as Alceste is probably the most noteworthy of the bunch in that respect. He strikes an effective, delicate balance between silly and somber while he lilts between his lines with a parkour-like grace, most notably when Alceste and Arsinoe (played by Pageen Lamb) share the stage. Lamb's Arsinoe is refined, uptight and deliberate as she acts almost entirely with her face; her quietly emotive, intense, evocative, gurning face. The rest of the cast are fine, and they all bring something to both the poignant scenes and the occasional bit of ham-to-ham combat, but it's when Lamb and Pearson act opposite each other that the show gets so good you can't look away.
Moliere's original vision was of a bunch of backstabbing 17th Century French aristocrats, and Balbontin did well to transfer their traits to a somewhat more modern set of arts and fashion scenesters. In all honesty, it wasn't a huge stretch. That's due in part to the director's keen interpretation and in part to Moliere's use of the Aristocracy as a window on some of humanity's more glaring universal flaws. So, when you watch this play, you might see a few of your friends, contemporaries or even rivals reflected in that universality.
What I saw was a group of critics who longed to be artists, interspersed with artists who thought they were critics, along with a few who were neither but longed to be one or the other, or both. The line between the former and latter was a broad, blurry one. In fact, the story is pretty much built on a foundation of broad blurriness, and every character in the cast seems to lend their own particular proclivity to a different, distinct social archetype, bringing some uncomfortably familiar habits to life.
At times, I could almost picture some local colleague or another playing each of this story's roles. There was one in Oronte's artistic aspirations, another in Celimene's facetious narcissism, and still another in weary Arsinoe's judgmentalism. Even affable Philinte and diplomatic Eliante. Pretty much every character in this show could've been based on a local critic I've read.
Everyone except for Alceste, anyway. His pretentious derision, his way of saying whatever comes to mind, of making everything about him, and not caring who he alienates in the process? Totally unrealistic. I just couldn't figure out what he was supposed to represent.
This show remains true to its source, though, focusing less on a plot progression than it does on the quirks of its characters. From start to finish, each of them is just about as terrible a person as he or she was when it began. In the end, you're pretty sure none of them learned a lesson. No one's the better for what they've been through. For all the problems they've endured, none of them have changed or grown in any meaningful way.
So, no one steals this production's titular role. There's enough misanthropy to go around, and the play is purposefully vague that way. Any one of these characters could be the story's central misanthrope. Each of them reflects some unacknowledged and unenviable quality within us, so each is its own particular kind of unflattering mirror held up for our embarrassed inspection. In the end, I think the point of Balbontin's adaptation may be that the misanthrope isn't even necessarily a person on the stage. It could be anyone in the room. Maybe you, maybe even me.
No... On second thought, it can't be me. I'm pretty sure I'm as infallible as Alceste, so it's probably you.
With: Joe Scheller, Sam Pearson, Nathan Gebhard, Todd O'Dowd, Devon Cox, Anni Jordan-Amberg, Charla Marie Bailey, Brian Coffin, Pegeen Lamb, Maya Elena Baglien, Sasha Ivonovsky-Schow, Loren Endorf, Greg Novak
When: Jan 8 & 15 at 7 p.m.; Jan 9, 10, 16 & 17 at 10 p.m.
Where: Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake Street, Mpls.
Tickets: $10-$15. www.bryantlakebowl.com