Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Moliere

Review | Don Juan by Moliere | Adapted by Jess Burkle | Pearl Theatre Company

Relax, Moliere doesn’t need help – not this help anyhow

Is it possible for Don Juan to be dull?  Unfunny?   Unsexy?

The answer is yes.  Oh shucks.  Jess Burkle’s tedious adaptation relies on the audience identifying with contemporary lingo and clichés, rather than on new wit.

This whole production, in fact, seems driven by the fear that Moliere will bore the audience, even in an adaptation that stands on its head be contemporary.  The director, Hal Brooks, has the characters talking at top speed almost as in set speeches —  not communicating and interacting with one another.  What’s lost in the rush are Moliere’s rich characterizations and dramatic tension – and that does lead to boredom.

The talented cast does all it can within the given framework.  In a promising entrance, Justin Adams as Juan bursts on the scene in gleaming white and tight pants, like a rock star. But for all of his frenetic energy, we never sense his lasciviousness – he just doesn’t get enough time.  What a paradox — this is the most sexless production of any Don Juan I’ve seen.

The bright spot is a “patter” monolog with a catchy flow of Freudian stream of consciousness in contemporary idiom, heroically delivered at break-neck speed by Brad Heberlee in the role of Don Juan’s servant, Sganarelle. This tour-de-force performance is exciting while it lasts, but it’s isolated and takes the play nowhere.

Moliere productions often come with contemporary interpolations while holding steady to the play, as in The Pearl’s own delightful production of The Misanthrope.  A truly great adaptation of Moliere is David Ives’ The School for Lies, at Classic Stage, an adaptation of The Misanthrope saturated with contemporary sensibility, and one of the wittiest, funniest shows I’ve ever seen (I loved it so much I went twice for the sheer pleasure of it!)

Which just shows you, it can be done.

Don Juan plays at the Pearl Theatre on Manhattan’s west side through  June 7, 2015 .

Review | The Heir Apparent by David Ives | Adapted from Le Légataire Universel by Jean-François Regnard | Directed by John Rando | Classic Stage Company

David Ives does it again — almost.  His earlier adaptation of Moliere’s le Misanthrope (1666), renamed The School for Lies  (reviewed here in 2011) was an orgy of unending laughter.  This adaptation of Regnard’s le Légataire Universel (1708) which he renames The Heir Apparent isn’t as successful although Ives follows his same rules of mod transformation, because Regnard’s play falls short of the brilliance of le Misanthrope.

So what does David Ives “do” with these late sixteenth and early seventeenth century French plays?

He translates them into completely contemporary lingo, without any inhibitions or unnecessary reverence for  “The Past,” unworried about “anachronism,” using contemporary slang and turns of phrase, and in a spectacular rush of imagination invents contemporary in-jokes in place of  the in-jokes of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that today would seem like out-jokes, or be missed.  He’s tremendously witty!  Meanwhile, he holds to the past in the costumes and, with titillating ambiguity, in the decor, and for the plot maintains the rules, regulations, customs and laws of the 16th and 17th centuries, all of which, coming up against the contemporary language and modern references, create a delicious cognitive dissonance.

Thanks to David Ives, these plays come to us more themselves than they would be in literal word-for-word translations.  They’re as good as they were in their own day which in the case of Moliere means marvelous, less so for Regnard.

Jean-François’ Regnard was a reigning comic playwright of the Comédie-Français after Moliere; this is his best known work.  The situation is that  a rich old man, Geronte, appears to be dying and his poor nephew, Eraste, is angling for his fortune, which will enable him to marry the beautiful Isabelle.  Obstacles arise for Eraste including the varied set of characters seeking the dying man’s fortune who appear and, in some amusing scenes, claim in one preposterous way or another to be long lost relatives.

The biggest obstacle of all is that the tough old geezer, much as he seems on his last legs, simply doesn’t die.  Crispin the servant, facilitator to the core, invents clever schemes to help Eraste whose own inability to do anything for himself makes him a less than sympathetic character as a lover, which I found a weakness in the play.  Who cares if this jerk gets the girl or not?

Much of the early part of the play (at least it seemed to go on a long time) centers around old man Geronte’s problems with his plumbing: there’s lots of tiresome scatological joking and horsing around.  Instead of an amusingly extreme aspect of character (such as one would find in Moliere), we’re stuck with Geronte’s extreme digestive problems, but Paxton Whitehead, abandoning any vestige of narcissism, gives his all to the rather repulsive role and, when called for, produces an impressive of physical transformation.  By the end of the play, the characters’ situations have changed but — in contrast to le Misanthrope — they haven’t learned much.

The most interesting character is Scruple — the short lawyer of briefs — acted by David Pittu who plays it like José Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1952 John Huston film, The Moulin Rouge — on his knees.  He’s also responsible for the most hilarious scene in which the attorney, a true professional, is drawing up his client’s will while oblivious to false identities — always good for laughs, and Pittu’s intelligent but obtuse sober mien adds to the fun.

Carson Elrod is energetic and amusing as Crispin, the man of many devices and “a whole comédie-française in himself.” Suzanne Bertsch is appropriately imperious as Isabelle’s mother.

See The Heir Apparent and you’ll enjoy it, but you don’t “have to see” it the way I felt you “had” to see The School for Lies.  (I saw it twice just so somebody else who’d miss it otherwise could see it once.)

The Heir Apparent plays at Classic Stage Company in New York City’s East Village through May 4th, 2014.

Review | The School For Lies by David Ives | Directed by Walter Bobbie | Classic Stage Company

… triple play …

What a romp!  What sheer fun!  Moliere would have loved The School For Lies.

And what a record, three for three, for Classic Stage and David Ives:

  • 2009:  Classic Stage produces Ives’ brilliant play about Spinoza,  New Jerusalem:  The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza
  • 2010:  Classic Stage produces Ives’ Venus in Fur which was a big success and launched Nina Arianda into stardom (though I found it tiresome)
  • 2011:  Classic Stage produces Ives’ The School for Lies, from Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and they’re right back on brilliant

The School for Lies roughly follows Moliere’s The Misanthrope with Ives translating it into the words, rhythms, and catch-all phrases of today’s youth-slanted English — and these are very young characters.  He’s discovered complete freedom of vocabulary — no word for word translation but every attempt, and success, at catching the sense of each line, its feeling, the characters’ pleasure in saying it and the impact on the hearer.

The effect in its way is pure Moliere.  Ives bridges the 17th to 21st Centuries!

And, though perhaps less inventive, Ives is as witty as Moliere!  Like The Misanthrope, The School for Lies is in rhyme — rhyming couplets, strings of internal rhymes, can-you-top-this? rhymes, punning rhymes, delayed rhymes that you wait for and that never disappoint on arrival — bringing a grin, a chortle, a guffaw, and a sigh of satisfaction.

We’re in Paris among aristocrats in the 17th Century.  Well, we’re sort of there:  the furnishings are of the time, and the characters wear gorgeous period costumes  but they talk like us.  Celimene is a spirited, witty recent widow and a flirt who loves society.  Frank is an impulsive, sarcastic brooder, disdainful of humanity and its superficial social conventions — hugs in particular.  He’s sort of a hippie, she’s a party girl, and yet they love, sparring like Annie and Frank in Annie Get Your Gun.   The play abounds with rich characters, Philante, Frank’s friend with the “be reasonable, Frank” message who turns into a Queen ex machina;  Clitander (fun and names) super rich and content with his stupidity;  Oronte, whose dreadful poetry bears the brunt of Frank being frank, and others to entangle themselves in each others’ lies and loves.

This is a cast with great comic timing and marvelous expressions — subtle and broad as needed — Jenn Gambatese is particularly amusing as Elainte who loves … well, everybody here loves a few different people.  The tall, tousled Hamish Linklater gives a vigorous and always humorous performance and he’s handsome so that we can believe Celimene falls in love with him against her better judgment.  Mamie Gummer is persuasive as Celimene though the role could use more sparkle.  Everybody’s good but I’d particularly mention Steven Boyer whose long-suffering deadpan in the role of two servants holds the play together — you’d think that particularl joke that goes along with him might be overdone, but it works every time.

I’ve seen The Misanthrope at the Pearl Theatre recently which prompts comparison:  the stories and characters are similar but the differences are interesting — though I was so captivated by The School for Lies that these took awhile to sink in.  In The School for Lies, the hero, Frank, speaks of his hatred of hypocrisy.  In The Misanthrope,  the parallel hero, Alceste, hates hypocrisy and injustice.  And therein lies a tale.  The School for Lies is focused on individuals, on the foibles of this group and the hilarity they engender.  Injustice looms larger in The Misanthrope where, for all the laughter, one is always aware of the great power imbalances of the social structure and the insecurities they cause.  All in all, The School for Lies is a less political play than The Misanthrope.  In a way this is surprising, since Moliere, living and writing under the tight reign of Louis XIV, had two of his plays banned by the government, while Ives has nothing to lose.

(And those court cases often referred to are totally unclear to me in both plays.)

And Moliere’s play, for all of its exaggerated characterizations, is more realistic in terms of personalities and relationships, particularly in the more complex, anguished and genuinely philosophical character of Alceste, now Frank in The School for Lies.  And speaking of realism, Frank impossibly turns out to be someone else — but it’s so wonderfully funny you wouldn’t want it any other way.  These aspects give Moliere’s play the universality that inspires interpretations, adaptations, performances and other kinds of conversations with it in new generations — like The School for Lies.  But The School for Lies has its own great wit and language.

The School for Lies plays at Classic Stage in NYC’s East Village through May 22;  that’s too short a run for such an enjoyable play!

Review | The Misanthrope by Molière | Translated into English Verse by Richard Wilbur | Directed by Joseph Hanreddy | Pearl Theatre Company

Click to read about The School for Lies, from Moliere’s The Misanthrope currently playing at Classic Stage –and it’s great!

… opposites attract …

There’s a magic to Moliere’s The Misanthrope and here’s what it is.  It’s a play in which just about nothing happens … and yet you leave it with a big smile and the sense that you’ve seen something delightful. What is it? The
language! It’s witty and charming: it makes you feel like you’ve been at a party with vivacious, intelligent guests.

The “story” is no more than a situation – and more amazing, at the end it’s not even resolved. We’re in Paris among nobles in the 17th Century during the reign of Louis XIV (not Louis XVI as per program notes) — Moliere’s stomping ground. Celimene and Alceste, with apparently totally incompatible personalities, are drawn to one another in love. Celimene is a wealthy, beautiful, spirited young woman, who loves engaging with people, and is courted by several men. She loves misanthropic Alceste, who’s brooding, super-smart, disdainful of the mass of humanity, and obsessed with the hypocrisy and injustice he sees all around him. She’s happy in the full action of the social scene and he wants to get away from it all to a desert isle —  and yet they love. They spar verbally – like Kate and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew but with different personality sets. It’s fun to watch and hear them at it.

To the benefit of his comedy, Moliere mixes real and fully rounded characters in this play, Alceste, Celimene, and Philinte, the reasonable friend who attempts to moderate Alceste’s romantic extremism, with
bewigged and rouged caricatures of courtly noblemen: Clitandre, a super-elegant, rich fop, Oronte, a posturing poet whose banal love sonnets to Celimene Alceste refuses to praise in the name of honesty – or is it that he can’t bear rivals to Celimene’s hand? Their obtuse pretentions are
perfect foils for Alceste’s sardonic gloom – and yield tons of laughs!

The men are better cast in this play than the women (although Pearl has some outstanding women among its Resident Acting Company). Sean McNall is a suitably astringent Alceste, risking free-wheeling playfulness without breaking character. Philinte makes the sober, balancing friend fascinating: I especially appreciated the easy way he paces the rhythms and hits the exciting and lovable rhymes of Richard Wilbur’s wonderful translation. Kern McFadden as Oronte does a simply perfect piece as the sonneteer, and Patrick Halley makes an amusingly languid Clitandre. Janie Brookshire, while bouncy as the energetic Celimene, doesn’t have the stage presence or diction to carry off this central character, and there’s zero magnetism between this prickly Celimene and Alceste.  I’ll bet in 1666 when the show first opened with Moliere playing Alceste and his wife Celimene, there was more chemistry!

The costumes are of the period but the set — beyond abstract — is so minimalist the actors are hard-pressed for a place to sit down. Dear Pearl Theatre, now that you’re in your new theater with audience seating on three sides of the stage, it’s time to shed the proscenium staging left-over from your former theater downtown.

The Pearl has given us a fine opportunity to see an engaging play by the great classic playwright.  If you love language, vitality and high spirits, you’ll have a good time at The Misanthrope.

The Misanthrope plays at New York City Center Stage II in midtown Manhattan through February 20th.

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