Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Modern Twist Makes for Masterful "Misanthrope"

From the second your eyes gaze upon the Philip Johnson Glass House inspired set, you know you are in for an ultra-modernist take on The Misanthrope at the innovative New York Theatre Workshop. Jan Versweyveld's pristine Plexiglas architecture provides the ideal Autobahn for director Ivo Van Hove's 120MPH interpretation of Molière's classic comic satire on society's feigned civility.

In his gleefully genius, no-risk-unturned production, Van Hove displays with cutthroat wit that today's society hasn't changed much since Moliere's day. In polite circles, proper behavior dictates lying to the face and laughing behind the back. But intellectual truth-teller Alceste (played with sexy, sharp command by Bill Camp) aims to propel humanity forward by pointing out that such hypocrisy leads to a destructive placation. But his chorus of society hounds just don't get it, driving him to unimaginable acts of behavioral shock-and-awe, including showering his body with chocolate sauce, ketchup and jam in the midst of a gossip-infused dinner banquet. As evidenced by the stench that subsequently wafts into the audience, along with the visual affront of an imaginatively placed donut, he certainly knows how to get his point across.

Of course, others on this madcap playground share an opposite view, including Alceste's dearest friend Philinte (a nuanced, nimble turn by handsome Thomas Jay Ryan) who promotes civility and white-lie kindness. Making Alceste's morality even more of a mishmash is his obsession with the self-absorbed young socialite Célimène (played with a beguiling, strong beauty by Jeanine Serralles). This opposites-attract pairing provides roll-on-the-floor passion that is as destructive as it is addictive.

But it is the ingenious use of technology that puts Van Howe's production into the can't-miss category, providing almost as much wit as Molière's sharper-than-ever dialogue (translated here to crystal clarity by Tony Harrison). With exquisite video production by Tal Yarden offering commentary on the misguided antics of the brilliant cast, along with constant Blackberry glances and snapping of cell phone pics, this new society is kept from connection as much by machine as by pretense. A Steve Jobs-created world may look pristine on the surface, but when garbage is strewed about it and food left to rot and fester, it takes a gigantic hose to return us to decorum. The set may be waterproof, but luckily the philosophical and psychological insights of this production don't easily wash away.

Bonus: It is always a treat to see New York City actors who elevate the craft to art. In addition to the Camp/Serralles/Ryan triumvirate, Quincy Tyler Bernstein as Eliante, Jason C. Brown as Clitandre, Amelia Campbell as Arsinoé, Joan MacIntosh as Acaste and Alfredo Narciso as Oronte admirably bring their A game to meet the direction head on.

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