Director David Chambers and South Coast Repertory have chosen to move Richard Wilbur’s exquisite English-verse translation of Moliere’s 17th-century farce “The Misanthrope” from its original setting in the Paris of Louis XIV to the Nazi-controlled Paris of the 1940s. The justification is explained in two pages of program notes detailing the totalitarian similarities between the autocratic Louis and the forces of the Occupation. Unfortunately, what’s on the page doesn’t work on the stage.
In Alceste (John Vickery), Moliere has created the ultimate loner who rails uncompromisingly against the hypocritical society that surrounds him. How could such a personality exist, let alone function under the Occupation?
Chambers’ vision creates an interesting mood and is at times fun to look at, but has nothing to do with Moliere’s characters or Wilbur’s rhymed text.
What does work is Chambers’ establishment of Alceste and his love, Celimene (Lynnda Ferguson), as lead actors in a theater company. It allows the excellent Vickery to chew up every bit of exposed scenery with over-the-top comic gusto.
His Alceste appears to rail against the frailties of his peers, not only because of their inadequacies, but for the pure pleasure of hearing his own voice.
Ferguson’s elegantly statuesque Celimene gives ample reason for Alceste’s hypnotic infatuation, despite the fact she is the embodiment of everything he detests. Ferguson expresses her deceit and her hypocrisy with disarming directness and allows her sultry charms to speak for themselves.
Complementing the Barrymore-like machinations of Vickery are Richard Frank’s droll and sympathetic portrayal of Alceste’s friend Philinte and Mikael Salazar’s comically pompous Oronte, the rival for Celimene’s affections.
And Ferguson’s boudoir revelries are more than enhanced by the hilarious, commedia dell’arte-like prancings of Ron Boussom and Bill Mondy as the foppish duo Clitandre and Acaste.
Cindy Katz plays Celimene’s rival Arsinoe at one level, never matching the power or subtlety of her foe. And Luck Hari is inadequate as Celimene’s lovesick cousin, Eliante.
Scenic designer Ralph Funicello evokes the mood of the times with his detailed realization of the backstage area of a war-shrouded Parisian repertory theater company, aided by Chris Parry’s lighting, Shigeru Yaji’s authentic costumes and sound designer Garth Hemphill’s use of period recordings by Maurice Chevalier, Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt. Sylvia C. Turner’s choreography is more of an afterthought than an enhancement.