nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 26, 2006
Harpagon, the title character in The Miser, is meant to be mocked—he buries his gold in the garden but is so stingy that he orders his cook to select foods his dinner guests are not to like (they’ll eat less that way). He’s crotchety and smells of mothballs and yet hopes to marry a lovely young girl who sobs at the very sight of him (and who is secretly having a love affair with his foppish son Cléante). To save the cost of a dowry, he plans to marry his daughter Elise to a rich, elderly widower (while she secretly is engaged to his manservant Valere). Of course, all these potential marriages are complicated by the scheming of everyone involved on how to get their hands on Harpagon’s fortune, whether through trickery, theft, or his untimely demise.
And yet, in the enormously skilled hands of Angus Hepburn, Harpagon is also the heart and soul of Jean Cocteau Rep’s elegant but deeply flawed production of this Molière classic. The production separately credits the translation (by Charles Heron Wall) and the adaptation (by the Company), but there’s something of a disjunction between the two, which presents an almost insurmountable challenge for the performers. Many of them seem caught between the clashing imperatives of acting the 17th-century language and winking at it.
But Hepburn finds a way to motivate even his most bombastic and farcical moments, partly by adroit use of Harpagon’s tendency to directly address the audience. Hepburn’s Harpagon is appropriately crusty and often downright cruel, to be sure, but there’s a genuine-ness to his performance that made me empathize with the most ridiculous of his emotions and decisions. His attempts to make himself desirable to Mariane, his young potential bride, have a genuine pathos instead of merely seeming foolish.
Director Dan Zisson seems to be trying to have it both ways here—he wants to use the distance of history to comment on the present (per the press release), but also seems to want to infuse the text and the performances with modern attitudes—somewhat to the detriment of both. The translation isn’t in modern language, but it’s sprinkled with modern jokes (for example, turning some lines into lyrics from '80s pop songs)—which get laughs, but felt to me like cheap shots rather than honest comedy. The actors are speaking in period language, but reacting to 21st century innuendo and with modern sensibilities. The costumes are period, but the characters are not.
The best example I can give of this culture clash is the character of Cléante, Harpagon’s son. Cléante is a fop; he’s gotten himself terribly into debt trying to keep up his wardrobe and his image as a young man about town. His father thinks his clothing and his hairstyle are ridiculous, not to mention the money he’s spent on them, and Harpagon’s disapproval of the outer trappings of Cléante’s identity only adds to Cléante’s frustration, fear of his father, and inability to talk to his father. Now, there isn’t really a 21st century analogue to the 17th century fop; a modern translation might have a father complaining about his son’s copious tattoos and body piercings, or the money he spends on iTunes. Here, though, Cléante comes off merely as someone who’s vain and fusses over his hair—sort of a sitcom stereotype of a gay hairdresser or a metrosexual, which doesn’t allow him to give vent (or weight) to the relationships and issues underlying the jokes. It feels as if he’s been told to play the outer trappings of the character—rather than the character itself—with a modern consciousness.
I hasten to add that this isn’t a criticism of actor Seth Duerr, who comes beautifully and subtly to life when he’s allowed to drop the archness and speak lovingly to Mariane. But the production can’t seem to make up its mind whether to perform a farce, or comment farcically on the play, and thus doesn’t entirely succeed at either.
It’s a shame, because it’s a physically lovely production, especially Roman Tatarowicz’s simple set and Rich Dunham’s lighting, that uses the space in creative ways. And many of the actors have moments that shine through the confusion and really engage both the play’s humor and its cynicism—especially Duerr, Melanie Hopkins as Mariane, and Mickey Ryan as cook/coachman Maître Jacques.