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Man’s inhumanity: Berkshire Theatre Festival’s The Misanthrope.

The Rhythm Is Gonna Grate You
By Ralph Hammann

The Misanthrope
By Moliere, verse translation by Richard Wilbur, directed by Anders Cato
Berkshire 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 hypocrisy.

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.

Creating Chemistry

They’re Playing Our Song
Book by Neil Simon, music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, directed by James Warwick
The 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 theater scene.

They’re 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 magnetism.

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 and flair.

They’re 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.

—Ralph Hammann


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