Monday, October 1, 2012

Theatre Gym "The Miser" review by ChaimEliyahu

No Misers Here! Rating: 5
The Miser
The Theatre Gym

Generous performances abound in the Theatre Gym's production of Molière's "The Miser," running just three more nights at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station. Thank God — and director Art Suskin's talented cast — for that, because a leaden performance is the great risk of staging work from this period.

I went out of my way to catch this show because the lead role — Harpagon, the eponymous Miser — is played by Alan Tilson, a gifted Shakespearean actor. His gifts are fully on display here, along with his courage. It's hard to imagine anyone but Tilson holding the stage so successfully, in a role that keeps him so constantly before us, responsible for delivering what might easily turn into a mudslide of words in a less agile mouth. And the courage part (apart from the word-count) lies in allowing himself to be made to appear so grossly unattractive as the role requires. Here, credit should be given to costume designers Catherine Kinsey and Jason Wade, along with milliner Noah Adams, and to John Hollan for makeup and hair — not only for making Tilson so very unattractive, but for making the rest of the cast shine in contrast (all against on a simply handsome set designed by Glen Anderson).

And they do shine: the Theatre Gym cast reveals depth on the bench that keeps Molière's soufflé aloft throughout. Yes, there's a lot of stage business, but that goes with the territory. And there were a few moments where my dramaturg-within was activated — but upon reflection, I only (vaguely) remember thinking "this part could be tightened up" once. But the improbable soap-operatic revelations again swept me away. By and large, this a cast of professional stage-businesspeople, handling the show's over-the-top demands with aplomb, frequently drawing us audience members into their "private" opinions of what's going on in the clear light of stage and inviting our laughter at the sorry limitations of our species and its conventions.

Truly, every member of the cast deserves mention: Devon Barnes as Élise, Harpagon's love-struck daughter, and Brian Hunter as Cléante, his foppish son; Andy Penn as Valère, the former's secret love and Harpagon's steward (and more, not to be revealed until Act II — nor by this reviewer), and Sarah Jeter as Marianne, the latter's fantasy crush (and girl-next-door); Mike Ott as La Flèche, a household servant in cahoots with Cléante; Elizabeth Hill as Dame Claude, a long-suffering maid; Dean Kinsey and Spencer Carney, as a clownish team of household servants in the first act, and employees of the court in the second; and Jack Winslow as Master Jacques, cook, coachman, (and one suspects, bottle-washer) as well as vengeful class traitor (though another second-act revelation shows his last descriptor to be not actually true). Greg Lane also splits roles between acts, first as financial advisor Simon, then as Signior Anselm, the older man Harpagon lusts after as his daughter's perfect match, to further feed his miserly moneybox — but who also turns out to be much, much more by the end of the show. And I was especially taken with Bianca N. Jordan as Frosine, the matchmaker, a crucial part in a play that endangers the couplings we're rooting for with the threat of others that not only make us cringe, but want to hurl: she maintains period-appropriate elegance despite her many manipulations, but also brings flashes of modern sass that keep us from feeling we've gotten stuck in some performance-museum.

Molière might sound esoteric, but like Shakespeare, there's plenty to appeal to us groundlings here. We get wrapped up (like Cléante does quite literally) in plot contractions that are released in a bombardment of plot twists in Act II that would take weeks to unspool in a soap opera, the modern form that this play most closely approximates. And thematically, we're made to face the effects of our basest craving: lust for money.

In fact, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should warn you about the presence of embarrassing, graphic love scenes at both the show's opening and its close — and here we return to Tilson's courage to repel: I can't recall a more vivid depiction of the sick love between a man and his moneybox. You really shouldn't miss it!

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