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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A funny thing happened on the way to the French court: Theater class offers unique interpretation of Molière

Published: November 7, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

Theater producers have been known to make some questionable artistic choices in attempts to breathe new life into classic plays. Whether the productions change the gender of the characters, switch the setting, or reinvent the wardrobe, great old plays seem to live dozens of lives. It’s that spirit that infused the Theater 100a class’s production of Molière’s The Misanthrope.

One rarely thinks of the words “tragedy” and “Molière” in the same sentence, but apparently Mohit Gourisaria, the show’s director (or at least her theater teacher) thinks they deserve to sit side by side. If you went into the production expecting a traditional interpretation of a well-known comedy, you probably left disappointed. But if you were willing to explore a different side of the play, you might have found the production thought provoking.

The story chronicles the exploits of Alceste, a French nobleman and extraordinary cynic who finds himself facing both a damaging lawsuit and a cheating mistress, Celimene. Throughout the course of the play Molière paints an unflinching portrait of the Enlightenment era French aristocracy.

The actors did not attempt to put on English accents, as is the trend in many foreign language plays. I found this preferable to the mangled style of speech you often hear in such productions.

Moreover, there was little in the way of set or costumes to evoke the setting. The set consisted of a few mismatched pieces of furniture while the costumes appeared to be arbitrary articles of clothing picked from the actors’ personal closets. Thus, the actors had to rely on the natural tools of their craft to create the milieu.

Hank Lin starred as the unsociable Alceste but seems to harbor not-so-secret ambitions to play Hamlet. His presence onstage was something like a tornado with a little less self-control. Scrambling from one end of the stage to another, he displayed a raw physicality that made his performance memorable whether you enjoyed his interpretation or not.

Rebecca Joy played the coquettish Celimene with cold, calculating thoughtfulness. Nevertheless, she completely missed out on the flirtatiousness that is supposed to define her character. Among the female leads, the strongest actress was the one playing a man. Ariella Katz played the eternally patient Philinte with her heart on her shirtsleeve yet without sentimentality.

Not all the actors were so serious, however. Anthony Scibelli brought levity and self-mockery to the role of Oronte. And Brian Melcher perhaps captured best the tone that Molière was trying to establish with his foppish portrayal of the arrogant Acaste.

In spite of excellent performances by several actors, I couldn’t help but hold onto the conviction that the author of The Misanthrope wanted us to laugh at our follies rather than morosely ponder them. Reinvention can make for an interesting and challenging play, but once you miss the humor, you miss the point.