inhumanity: Berkshire Theatre Festivals The
Rhythm Is Gonna Grate You
Moliere, verse translation by Richard Wilbur, directed by
Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Sept. 4
Born of personal anguish, The Misanthrope is Moliere’s
most serious and, arguably, most trenchant comedy. With it,
the 17th-century master wrote a scathing satire of the pretense,
stupidity and class that existed in Versailles under the egocentric
Sun King, Louis XIV.
Earlier this season, Anders Cato delivered a marvelous production
of George Bernard Shaw’s equally timely Heartbreak House,
which is similarly set among a leisured class out of touch
with the realities of the world. In it Shaw places himself
onstage in the character of the irascible Captain Shotover,
who periodically punctures pretense. In The Misanthrope,
Moliere creates the autobiographic character, Alceste, who
makes a passion of brutal honesty and an occupation of assaulting
Smitten with the beautiful and equally intelligent Celimene,
Alceste begins as a man of lofty principles and ends as a
sad fool who, in his stubborn pursuits, alienates himself
from society and the one person with whom he can find a modicum
of happiness and balance. Unquestionably nobler than the fools
he will not suffer, Alceste nonetheless comes to partially
resemble them in his own ego-driven actions and unreasonable
demands. It is the most difficult of Moliere’s great plays,
in that it relies far more on linguistics than slapsticks.
A work of great humanity and universality, The Misanthrope
has been translated many times, and Richard Wilbur’s is among
the greatest. Maintaining the strict meter of the original,
Wilbur also was able to preserve the rhyming couplets that
Moliere employed for the entire play. There is, thus, a pervasive
music to the piece, one of its delights—and one of its dangers
if the rhythm/rhyme scheme is not toned down.
Unfortunately, Cato and nearly the entire cast seem bent on
establishing Moliere as the first great rap artist. The result
is an assault of ping-ponging singsong that grows so tiresome
that it works as a soporific. Setting the monotone for most
of what follows are David Adkins’ Alceste and Steven Petrarca’s
Philinte. Their opening scene is so rife with stressed rhythms
and rhymes that the effect is less Moliere than Mother Goose.
This is especially problematic for Adkins, who seems to uncomfortably
labor under his enormous role at various junctures. Adkins
has done excellent work at the Berkshire Theatre Festival,
but here he lacks the presence and dexterity to charm us into
enjoying the theater’s most famous misanthrope, barring perhaps
Shaw’s Henry Higgins.
Somewhat better is Kate Jennings Grant, who manages to infuse
Celimene’s lines with marginally more variety. But she, too,
falls into monotony and, while beautiful and expressive of
face and posture, she never gets much beneath the surface.
Only Karen MacDonald, in the smaller role of Arsinoe, knows
how to make Moliere sing by sublimating the rhymes and subtly
breaking the insistency of the rhythms with masterful deployment
of inflection, pause and straddling of lines.
There are small delights elsewhere as in the physical appearances
of James Barry’s Clitandre and Tom Story’s Acaste. Costumed
as Versailles variants on Tweedledum and Tweedledee, they
are amusing to behold, particularly Barry, whose hairstyle
seems inspired by H.R. Giger’s creature design for Alien.
There are also Carl Sprague’s period set design, Oliviera
Gajic’s humorous costumes and Scott Killian’s spirited music.
The latter, when coupled with scene changes done in period
style, is an unexpected treat—one we can expect more of, as
Killian has just been made the BTF’s resident composer.
So, while not a disaster, Misanthrope is more a misstep,
a sadly missed opportunity in an otherwise exceptional summer
at the BTF.
Playing Our Song
by Neil Simon, music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Carole
Bayer Sager, directed by James Warwick
Colonial Theatre at the Berkshire Music Hall, Pittsfield,
Mass., through Aug. 29
A distinct improvement over the Colonial Theatre’s production
last summer of Damn Yankees, this show gives reason
for hope. And the near-capacity audience made up of a healthy
cross-section of society suggests the Colonial Theatre may
have sufficient support to become a player in the Berkshires
Playing Our Song is a modest musical that pays distinct
dividends when allowed to be itself and, especially, when
cast well. It tells a fairly straightforward story of the
odd-couple romance that blossoms between Vernon Gersch, a
composer, and Sonia Walsk, a lyricist. Vernon is a neurotic,
intellectual New York Jew whose only mistress is a baby grand;
Sonia is a free- spirited resident of Greenwich Village who
wears cast-off theatrical costumes, and is still tied to her
needy ex-lover, Leon. The only other members of the cast are
Sonia’s voices (a zesty female trio) and Vernon’s voices (a
similar male trio).
Simon has trod this territory before in such works as Barefoot
in the Park and Chapter Two, but familiar as the
theme may be to Simon aficionados, he has managed here to
invest the characters with sufficient depth to make us care
anew. Moreover, his trademark one-liners come quite naturally
from the characters’ personalities.
Marvin Hamlisch has composed catchy tunes that work as well
with Carole Bayer Sager’s lyrics as do Vernon’s with Sonia’s.
And the music arrives with a naturalness and inevitability
that eludes too many musicals.
In support of the romance between musicians, director James
Warwick and set designer Carl Sprague have placed the accomplished
orchestra on a bandstand above the actors. It has become an
overused technique ever since Chicago revived it with
great success on Broadway, but here it makes perfect sense.
Semi- visible behind a scrim, the orchestra becomes an image
of the force that unifies, drives and divides the two protagonists.
If only a similar device could be used to mute the music so
the actors’ voices could dominate without the use of amplification,
which at the beginning of the show, robs Amanda Watkins’ voice
of its warmth and depth.
It is a real problem during a nonmusical moment when Watkins
(Sonia) and Chip Zien (Vernon) share an intimate, romantic
scene, and it sounds as though Zien is acting opposite a loudspeaker.
In fairness, I attended the second preview of the show, so
perhaps the problem has been fixed. There is no good reason
that trained singers should be miked, especially in a theater
of this size, except that it has become de rigueur. Presumably
when the Colonial Theatre opens, its superb acoustics will
put an end to this practice.
Zien is excellent, making the humor seem entirely spontaneous
and possessing a commanding singing voice that seems to fill
the theater without artificial aid. Vernon could easily be
an irritating Woody Allen cliché, but Zien imbues him with
originality and makes us care. It all happens so gradually
that by the play’s final scene I was surprised at how much
I had been pulled in by Zien’s nearly imperceptibly growing
Watkins is a total charmer. From her first entrance in a costume
retired from The Cherry Orchard, she is the epitome
of the gypsy muse: One can understand how her Sonia could
inspire Vernon not only to compose music, but also to fall
in love. When Sonia says that she listens to music with her
soul, we believe her—such is the veracity and sensitivity
of Watkins’ performance.
Together, Watkins and Zien create genuine chemistry that beguiles
us into forgetting the conventions and mechanisms of romantic
musical comedy. We actually worry that Sonia’s and Vernon’s
love won’t play out as successfully as their music. They also
manage, between them, to make believable Simon’s wonderfully
constructed character, Leon, who never appears on stage.
Warwick, Sprague and the tech crew have facilitated fluid
scene changes and, apart from an apartment that could be messier,
have suggested the New York settings with an effective simplicity
Playing Our Song is a thoroughly amiable little musical
with a cast you’ll want to take home. Warwick could be well
on his way to creating a resident company for the Colonial.
As well, Berkshire Music Hall has received a fine baptism.