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“The Misanthrope” gets a modern twist

| Wednesday, November 19, 2014

web_the misanthrope_11-20-2014Samantha Coughlin

I have always considered what Molière did for comedy equivalent to what Shakespeare did for the English language.

One may discover parallels in the thematic elements of love, life and the mess between them through both playwrights’ portfolios, but what continues to intrigue me about Molière is his integrated wit for the pulse of what could be interpreted as a simple farce. The life found in his form of entertainment takes the shape of typical, overused plot and adds unexpected depth, purpose and delight to the background. He takes black and white political caricatures and colors them outside the lines of social acceptance, challenging not just the French but also the universal stigma of human expressionism through different layers of humor.

The recent Saint Mary’s production of Molière’s “The Misanthrope” had flown under the radar until three weeks prior to the premier, until it gained momentum at the final minute with a publicity push on its major selling point: social media technology.

Like Shakespeare but with more rhymes and lyrical verses, “The Misanthrope” was translated from old French to classical English rhyming iambic pentameter couplets by Richard Wilbur (not 100 percent modern or contemporary but enough to work without an overpowering sense of language). Director Mark Abram-Copenhaver and his crew of student stage managers and designers adapted Molière’s original techniques to fit a wholly progressive era of mobile devices and social media. Abram-Copenhaver’s pre-show notes define the distinction between Molière’s original script written in 1666 and its Saint Mary’s makeover.

The set made the most of what little space the Moreau Center’s Little Theater had to offer. Transforming the entire stage into a bar and club made for more room onstage. “The Misanthrope” was no longer only a play title, but a hopping arena of modern-day nightlife, “Club Misanthrope.” The tone was set before a single line of dialogue was spoken, as the performers invited the audience to text their thoughts and feelings to be displayed on a screen onstage. This interactivity with social media and mobile devices throughout the performance created a unique atmosphere. The usual negative attitude towards cellphones in a theater actually connected the audience to the action onstage.

The story unfolds from start to finish as a murky love triangle, promising all the characteristics of a mainstream young adult rom-com. Molière’s plot and Abram-Copenhaver’s layout enticed with its broader philosophy, forcing the audience to reflect on personal genuineness in relationships. As seen throughout “The Misanthrope” in Célimène’s web of phony friendships, a fake face only goes as far as one can maintain its upkeep — a dishonest effort destined to backfire.

Moliére composed the original romantic comedy as only a Frenchman could, with an agonizing male protagonist Alceste (Dennis Defensor) extravagantly competing for the attention and affection of the beauteous and flirtatious Célimène (Jennifer Vosters), portrayed with such “Mean Girl” manner, one can’t help either falling in love with her or acknowledging her hard-to-get girl-next-door archetype. The cast is all-female with the exception of Alceste and his somewhat detached wingman, Philinte (Isaac Cabe). The communication, or lack of, is translatable in the pursuit of Alceste’s angst and Célimène’s indifference toward her suitors Acaste (Gnoli Raynor), Clitandre (Nina Benitez) and Oronte (Elizabeth Buckman), and confidante Éliante (Liv Lianez).

The story movement felt odd at times when characters randomly broke into song — their lines as lyrics to the music of Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It was unexpected but not in a way that’s pleasing to the plot’s fluidity. The “Club Misanthrope” setting makes sense, yet popular, mainstream music used to mimic a karaoke battle was uncalled for in a play attempting to balance emotion with amusement. If the idea was to convey characters’ desires, the timeless script would have been better spoken instead of singing out-of-context for the sake of music.

Abram-Copenhaver pulled together a little league of mostly non-theater majors and almost miraculously made them believable human beings, not just characters, in a demanding script. The theme and its relevance in multiple settings are enough without cluttered schticks. Love’s complications don’t get any easier to navigate even with Facebook, Youtube and Twitter.

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