Playwright: Moliere. At: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets: 1-773-753-4472; www.CourtTheatre.org; $45-$65. Runs through: June 9
Director Charles Newell must be tired of reviews complimenting the insightful intelligence of his work. He's done it again with this lucid and visually rich staging of Moliere's 1666 play about a man too incorruptibly honest for his own good. Alceste (Erik Hellman), a gentleman of leisure, condemns hypocrisy and pretense wherever he finds it, and rejects the cordial falsehoods and politesse of well-bred society. As his reputation for candor grows, more people ask for his frank opinions only to be offended by his usually-correct judgments, which eventually cost him advancement at the royal court and his lover, Celimene (Grace Gealey). When she proves as frank and judgmental as he is, Alceste forgives her infidelity and proposes a life of well-heeled solitude with him, only to be rejected because Celimene enjoys her lively social life and the exercise of ridicule, both of which Alceste considers crushing burdens.
Many critics view Alceste as near-tragic, an obsessive character who refuses to compromise and who is as passionate as he can be scathing. But the play itself is a comedy, albeit a dark comedy, and what's missing from this production is laughter. It's not solemn and the pace is lively, but very little is played for comedy although there are opportunities to do so. There's plenty of wit and trenchant cleverness in Moliere's script, especially in Richard Wilbur's justly-acclaimed translation which brilliantly preserves Moliere's rhymed couplets, and it's delivered with force and passion (and linguistic mastery) by Hellman, Gealey and others, but it's not comedic passion even when it might be at no disservice to the play's more profound ideas.
The only performer who develops some of the comic possibilities is Allen Gilmore, a proven master of style, playing in drag as Arsinoe, a woman both devious and no-longer young. It's a matter of taste or opinion, of course, but I believe the exaggerations of situation and character in The Misanthrope can fall more forcibly on an audience if leavened with appropriate laughter, of which this company certainly is capable. Then again, perhaps I attended a performance with a serious-minded audience, which sometimes happens.
This production is drop-dead gorgeous with design elements split between classical France and contemporary times. The lines of Jacqueline Firkins' costumesall of them in black with extravagant gold trimfeature ruffles and lace coupled with goth-rock and military flourishes. John Culbert's thrust set of ebonized woods and furniture is deep, glossy and luxurious and will be utilized for Moliere's Tartuffe opening in June, also directed by Newell.
Tartuffe employs physical comedy as well as comedic dialogue to leaven a message far bitterer than The Misanthrope. It will be interesting to see if Newell really uncorks the farce elements.