Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"The Misanthrope"

Playwright:  Molière (né Jean-Baptiste Poquelin)

Venue:  Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, Denver, CO

Company:  Germinal Stage Denver

Date of Performance:  Sunday, May 20, 2012

How do you update a classic piece of theater written in 1666?  You start by introducing it with one of John Denver’s greatest hits, of course. 

"But the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullaby
Rocky mountain high"

Oh.  And move the play from Paris to Aspen, and set it in the 21st century.  And violà!  It works!

For those unfamiliar with the play, a misanthrope is a person who dislikes and/or distrusts people in general.  I think we all know a “misanthrope,” but we would use different terms today; rude, inconsiderate, self centered, and antisocial all come to mind.

Molière’s comedies often mock the upper classes, showing them to be shallow hypocrites and fools.  He writes in verse, and Germinal Stage Denver has very wisely used the Richard Wilbur translation.  Wilbur has deftly preserved Moliere’s wit and rhymes without losing anything in translation. 

The plot seems thin by today’s standards; Alceste gets into a huge dispute with Oronte.  The disagreement is over whether Oronte has any promise as a poet (he doesn’t), and whether Alceste could somehow be a little more sensitive in his criticism (he can’t). 

Molière also dabbles here in some more serious plot questions.  Are manners the enemy of truth?  Do men compromise all their convictions for a woman?  Actually, though, these questions are secondary to the comedy.  Molière will make you laugh, he will entertain you, and that, frankly, is the goal here.

Alceste (Terry Burnsed) is brilliant as the antisocial misanthrope.  He’s a cranky curmudgeon, and he doesn’t care in the slightest that he is exceedingly unpopular as a result.  He’s rude because he insists on telling the truth to people instead of exercising the false politeness that passes for manners.  He speaks truth to power…and to everyone else as well.

Alceste has a highly capable foil in Celimene, played by Julie Michalak.  She’s sassy, sexy, witty, and she knows how to handle the Misanthrope.  Michalak brings a perky feminine presence to the stage that makes us laugh at Alceste’s foolishness while she charms every male who takes the stage.  She may be from the 17th century, but she’s a modern woman in every sense.

The entire cast is very capable, and this production makes Molière fun again.
Even better than making Molière fun again is that director Ed Baierlein makes Molière relevant again.  Setting the play in contemporary Aspen reminds us that the “elites” are still an easy target for Molière’s wit.  Money may get you a condo near the ski lift, but it doesn’t cure the self-indulgent foolishness that often accompanies the privileged class.

I think if Molière were alive today, he might be a rap artist.  His rhyming lines and social commentary would make him a great collaborator with 50 Cent or Jay-Z.  Or perhaps he would be a comedy writer…and a very good one.  He can throw out zingers as well as the writers of “Big Bang Theory” or any other contemporary comedy.

As a long-standing Molière fan (we all have guilty pleasures, right?), I was definitely looking forward to this Germinal Stage Denver production.  It delivered.  I totally enjoyed the production and the performance.  If Molière is not your guilty pleasure, I get it.  But if you give it a chance, I think you’ll be glad you did. 

NOTE:  This is definitely a family show.  Kids might resist seeing something written in verse 340 years ago, but they might also be very surprised to find they like it.

This show runs through June 10, 2012.

Director:  Ed Baierlein

Terry Burnsed (Alceste)

Julie Michalak  (Celimene)

Leroy Leonard (Philinte)

Eric Victor (Oronte)

Sam Gilstrap (Acaste)

Randy Diamon (Clitandre)

Mary Cates (Eliante)

Anne Smith Myers (Arsinoe)

Marc K. Moran  (Dubois)  

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