Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2007
Director Kevin McGuire writes in his Director’s Notes that he found working on this production of Molière’s 1668 comedy The Miser to be the “perfect antidote to winter.” Indeed, in this hibernal season, which has made up for in ferocity what it lacked in timing, a good laugh is what we all need, and McGuire’s perfectly cast, fast paced, and brutally physical production brings laughter, energy, and artistry to Hubbard Hall.
McGuire cites an unnamed former teacher who told him to think The Three Stooges and not Restoration Comedy when tackling Molière, and that is precisely what he does. But this is not the senseless “nyuk-nyuk” eye-poking, head-bopping violence which delays the plot, but focused slapstick and physical clowning which springs organically from character and script.
I constantly forget Molière’s real name, and, in the process of searching it out I stumbled across the following delightful French turn of phrase. He was “Jean Baptiste de Poquelin, dit Molière.” The word “dit” translates most literally into English as “say.” He was Jean Baptiste de Poquelin, but we say Molière. I like that.
Molière (1622-1673) was, of course, one of the greatest dramatists in the history of world theatre. His plays are performed the world over, and The Miser ranks as his second most popular work, after Tartuffe. While Molière called this play “a comic romp of no consequence” it does have a strong message about the relative value of worldly possessions and human attachment. The title character, Harpagon, values his strong box full of money more than anything in the world – more than his children and their happiness, more, even, than his own life. Based on the Commedia del Arte stock character of Pantalone, Harpagon is a readily recognizable character in any age. Jack Benny’s stage persona and I Love Lucy’s Fred Mertz are two modern takes on the same theme.
The full title of the play in French is L'Avare ou l'École du mensonge which translates as The Miser, or The School of the Lie and every single character dissembles quite shamelessly to get what they want in this 1935 English translation by John Wood. Harpagon (Douglas Ryan) wants his children – Élise (Anatasia Satterthwaite) and Cléante (Michael Maloney) – to make the most financially advantageous marriages possible. They have both fallen in love with less than wealthy partners – Valère (Jason Dolmetsch) and Mariane (Keelye St. John) respectively – and, as is typical with the offspring of the wealthy who have never known the hardship of poverty, see nothing wrong with marrying for love rather than money.
But Harpagon has arranged through Frosine (Kim Johnson-Turner), (referred to as a “go-between” in this translation but elsewhere called “a woman of intrigue”), to marry Mariane himself, and has contracted for Élise to be married to the elderly Anselme (Ben Scurria), who is not only wealthy but who has agreed to take Élise without a dowery.
Chaos ensues while the children and the servants – La Flèche (Scurria), Maître Jacques (Benjie White), La Merluche (Robert Wright), and Brindavoine (David Borthwick) – scheme to get their own way. The happy ending is pure Deus ex machine, but everyone gets exactly what he or she wants and deserves.
There is nothing to complain about here. The cast is uniformly energetic, funny, and well able to perform all the hi-jinks McGuire and Molière require. Ryan is not the first younger actor to pass himself off as the aged Harpagon, and he does it with a wicked sense of fun. Small and wiry, Ryan wriggles and snuffles his way around the theatre – keeping one eye on that strong box and his nose fast on the scent of his next opportunity to increase his holdings. When the strong box goes missing Ryan stands atop the hassock and in a thin falsetto trills a tuneless song of pain and loss that is simultaneously touching and hilarious.
Equally amusing is White’s portrayal of Maître Jacques, who is both Harpagon’s chef and his coachman, and sorely tired by his master’s parsimony in both positions. White affects a different accent and physical attitude for each job, and he signifies which position he is assaying by laboriously switching hats.
And the third big laugh-getter in this ensemble is Scurria as the scurrilous La Flèche who stoops gives as good as he gets from Harpagon.
In their 17th century finery Satterthwaite and Maloney look like a pair of porcelain figurines, so perfect are their complexions and features. And yet they prove far more durable than those mantelpiece ornaments as the run, fall, and fight their way through the show.
Dolmetsch and St. John also look quite fine, and do a nice job with their roles. Johnson-Turner appears to be having a grand time as the sole grand dame in the cast.
McGuire has set the action in 1660, and the production design by Alley Morse supports that illusion while leaving a broad playing area on the floor and on the stage for the cast to cavort on. The show is staged in three-quarters round, the fourth wall in this case being the stage itself, which is also used as performance space. In other words, where there aren’t actors, there is audience.
This is an intimate production, which, with a show this physical, leads to a thrilling encounter for actor and spectator alike. We sat in the front row and my companion was quite convinced that an actor or two was going to land in our laps any minute. I knew that every fight and flight was far more tightly choreographed than that, but it was still exciting to see it all up close and personal. I have never been to a professional wrestling match, but I would imagine that my experience at The Miser was akin to having ring-side seats for the WWF.
There is literally only one piece of furniture in the open expanse of faux marble floor, a round hassock about three feet in diameter, and everyone manages to fall or climb over and around it in the course of the play. Likewise the extremely steep ramp leading from the playing area on the floor to the stage proper. Actors careen down it (and occasionally up as well) on their bellies and their butts, some with great elegance and some with great abandon. High-heeled women trot determinedly up and down its length. People lounge and are splayed across its near-to-vertical surface.
Then there are the enormous gilded and mirrored doors at either end of the playing space. The ones on the stage miraculously play Baroque music when opened, which ends equally abruptly as soon as they are closed; while the ones that lead to the curtained off “back stage” area under the balcony don’t open at all – situations that the characters accept as the natural way of this cockeyed world with hilariously results.
No one is credited with the gorgeous costumes and wigs. A program note states that in 17th century France men wore wigs and women didn’t, but here both sexes augment their hair to great effect, except for Ryan, who has grown his own hair, what there is of it, and colored and stiffened it into a most malleable mass of grey straw. His attempts at a beguiling “comb-over” to woo the young Mariane are hilarious, and by the end his hair is just plain standing on end.
Yes, the play is a little wordy by modern standards, but McGuire and his ensemble move things along as fast as possible and give you something to laugh at every few seconds to take your ADD-afflicted 21st century mind off of the 17th century demand for prolonged attention. Given proper preparation ahead of time, I would imagine even children as young as eight or nine will get a kick out of this production, and certainly those 12 and up will enjoy all the sight gags and silliness.
The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall’s production of The Miser runs through April 7 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. Performances are March 8 at 7 p.m., March 9, 10, 16, 17, 23, 24, 30 & 31 and April 6 & 7 at 8 p.m., and March 11, 18, 25 and April 1 at 2 p.m. Individual tickets are $20 for Hubbard Hall members, $24 for non-members and $15 for students. TCHH also offers a group sales rate of $10 per ticket for blocks of 10+ tickets reserved in advance by non-profit organizations. For information and reservations, call 518-677-2495.
The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007