Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Early on in The Misanthrope, our titular (anti)hero Alceste (a phenomenally dour, Rickman-like Bill Camp) proclaims: "We ought to punish pitilessly that shameful pretense of friendly intercourse. I like a man to be a man, and to show on all occasions the bottom of his heart in his discourse. Let that be the thing to speak, and never let our feelings be hidden beneath vain compliments."* If ever a director has agreed with this virtuous rant, it is Ivo Van Hove, who punishes his actors, using animalistic direction to drag out the savage bottom of their hearts, confrontational camera work to keep feelings from being hidden (or from running of stage), and superficial props (like food and garbage) to, ironically, strip away the superficial.
The play opens with sped-up shots of the cast having their makeup applied, which serves both to be frank (Van Hove seems reluctant to partition actors from their roles), and to establish the vanity of these characters. Then the overhead lights flicker with their harsh glow, and we find Philinte (a straight-faced Thomas Jay Ryan) trying to convince Alceste to be a little less brutally honest. Poor Alceste tries, with the self-proclaimed poet Oronte (Alfredo Narciso), but the bile boils over. Only with his lover, Celimene (Jeanine Serralles) is he more docile: he has the blind faith that he can change her. Instead, he ought to fear her more: she flirts so shamelessly with her "friends" (Acaste and Clitandre, played by Joan Macintosh and Jason C. Brown) that even the hypocritical prude, Arsinoe (Amelia Campbell) chastises her, and her cousin, Eliante (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), refuses to take her side. The entire cast is outstanding, particularly Bill Camp, and Serralles stands out (as she did in The Black Eyed), with her easy transitions between moods, pivots which are essential for illustrating the double-talk of socialites.
For emphasis, Jan Versweyveld's set limns them with sleek black reflective walls, displays them on a giant screen that makes up most of the back wall, and frames them with a series of windowless fourth walls. No matter where they go, the cameras (hidden behind the walls) follow, especially when they run (as they frequently do) offstage. It's a powerful effect, heightened by the harsh modernization of Harrison's translation and by Van Hove's violent, surprising direction.
The most striking scene has Celimene and her high-powered friends gathered around a table filled with the most decadent and fatty treats, all simultaneously talking on their cell phones and gorgeously gorging. In walks a fed-up Alceste, who turns their dinner party into a grotesque as he anoints himself with hot fudge, douses himself in ketchup, pours spaghetti and whipped cream down his pants, and crowns himself with half a watermelon.
Inflammatory staging such as this amplifies Moliere's words: at last the physical is as scathing as the verbal, and still--because of the often metaphoric qualities--subtle to a degree. They also help to build the emotion: rather than rushed rhyming couplets, the text now has a jazzy quality to it, with seductive rolls on the floor between lovers or prolonged and ridiculous wrestling matches between rivals. Such direct actions give way to the language--now ragged and sometimes clipped--and juxtapose the clean structure with the dirty truth.
The choice for an overbearing soundtrack, added to an already cinematic production, does steal from the effect. The actors are so crisp (even if their mikes are not) that it is unfair to make them fight music as well as emotion to make their point. Also, there are some segments that Van Hove hasn't quite figured out: Alceste's metadramatic use of a cameraman to reveal Celimene's betrayal is funny, but nothing more, and a video conference call between two cell phones and a Blackberry is awkward. (To be fair, it's awkward in the script, too.) Every play, no matter how experimental, must have some rules, and at times, it feels like Van Hove is cheating for the sake of aestheticism, not the integrity of the script.
Let him cheat. Ivo Van Hove is a brilliant auteur, and his work here, while distinctive, doesn't hurt Moliere, it just makes the revival fresh and unique. Van Hove, who seems to agree with Alceste that there should be frankness in all things, has put his reputation out on the table, spattered and splayed it across the walls. In return, he has made an unforgettably graphic comedy out of The Misanthrope, and that's a beautiful thing.
New York Theater Workshop (79 East 4th Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $65.00
Performances (through 11/11): Tues. & Sun. @ 7 | Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. @ 3 | Sun. @ 2