Theatre AUM's current season-opening production under Mike Winkelman's direction locates 17th Century French playwright Moliere's darkly funny "The Misanthrope" in 19th Century New Orleans during Mardi Gras, a choice that somehow works through the antic behavior of its actors, while it de-emphasizes the serious side of the play.
Moliere's concern among others was to criticize the attitudes and behavior of his contemporaries -- when fashion and glamorous appearance passed for substance, when flattery trumped honesty, and when one's reputation could be elevated or ruined by gossip...Sound familiar?! Here we are in a narcissistic celebrity-obsessed culture where more people recognize Paris Hilton than Elena Kagan, where frivolous lawsuits are brought and achieve an ill-gotten 15-minutes of fame, and where vulgar self-absorbed behavior dominates much of prime time and cyber bullying has driven some people to suicide.
Val Winkelman again triumphs in creating inventive and elegant costumes that depict the period and enhance characterizations; turning her hand to scenic design for the first time, she creates a minimalist setting comprising marble trompe-l'oeil columns, gold drapes, and glittering chandeliers -- and a set of "dancing chairs" -- that define the space and support the fluidly choreographed movement of the actors.
Alceste [Michael Krek] loves the beautiful Celimene [Laura Selmon], yet is facing a dilemma: he demands forthright honesty in everything, and she is a coquette who evades decisions and flatters others with apparent sincerity while slandering them behind their backs. But Alceste can not help himself, he is so much in love.
Alceste's friend Philinte [Josh Diboll] recommends more prudent speech, but when the foppish Oronte [LaBrandon Tyre] demands an honest assessment of an awful sonnet he penned -- and Alceste reluctantly complies -- the absurd result is a lawsuit against the honest man.
Most of the characters spend a great deal of time and effort to disguise their true selves in the name of fashion and politeness, and Alceste's tolerance is tested at every turn, much to the delight of the audience.
Philinte says he agrees that honesty is admirable, but he flatters with the best of them to avoid conflict. Arsinoe's [Brittany Carden] expression of high moral standards belies her amorous duplicity and implied critical judgements. Oronte's excessive response to Alceste's honesty pits them as rivals for Celimene's affection. Acaste [Mickey Lonsdale] and Clitandre [Wes Milton] are such fawning fops that Alceste can barely stand to be in the same room with them. Celimene's every action is a disguise so habitual that it is impossible for her to break. Ms. Selmon's archness, posturing, and false frozen smile reminiscent of beauty pageant contestants, make her appear brittle and unattractive -- but Alceste can not deny his affection for her, as unreasonable as it is.
Only Eliante [Alicia Fry] is down-to-earth and, in a way, a deserving match for Alceste's honesty.
The director has his ensemble push the envelope in both action and speech, employing broad gestures and mincing gates, melodramatic poses, and frenetic pacing along with rapid speech, all of which prompt earned laughs and applause throughout.
Using Richard Wilbur's masterful rhymed couplet verse translation, recognized by many scholars as the best available in English, the AUM actors are challenged to speak the words intelligibly, articulately, and meaningfully -- and they do a good job, some more successfully than others. Mr. Krek is chief among them, with Mr. Diboll running a close second; however, the choice of high-pitched voices for most of the women and of the fops Acaste and Clitandre often render the words almost unintelligible when coupled with raucous laughs and physical hi-jinks -- all suitable to the characters, no doubt, and drawing responsive appreciation from the audience which also covers up many of the words. -- Perhaps some calming down after opening night will temper the performances so their energy and committment get the reactions they deserve.
By the end of the play, we are exhausted from laughter, and have been connected to the lives of these characters. Alceste's ultimatum to Celimene -- give up the fashionable life and go away with him to a distant, calmer, and honest place away from the noisy delights of the city -- is an impossible demand; and we are left to decide whether it is for the best.