Review: ‘The Miser’

Appending a "y" to dangle from the end of "The Miser" is perhaps the only nail left unpounded in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's take on Moliere's classic farce. Or rather his "tragedy" -- as it emerges drastically re-interpreted by director Dominique Serrand, lead thesp Steven Epp and adapter David Ball.

Appending a “y” to dangle from the end of “The Miser” is perhaps the only nail left unpounded in Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s take on Moliere’s classic farce. Or rather his “tragedy” — as it emerges drastically re-interpreted by director Dominique Serrand, lead thesp Steven Epp and adapter David Ball. The Minneapolis theater’s co-production with several other esteemed regional companies has already won many admirers. But this white-box interp will strike others as mannered, pretentious, mean-spirited and awfully self-indulgent at three long hours.

A co-production of the 2005 Tony-winning, Minneapolis-based Jeune Lune with Berkeley Rep, American Repertory Theater and Actors Theater of Louisville, the evening announces its intent to push “the edge” to grating degrees right away, as a murky plastic construction tarp obscures the entire first scene between frustrated sweethearts Elise (Sarah Agnew) and Valere (Jim Lichtscheidl).

At last the ensemble of servants — so spastically woeful they seem to have strayed from “Marat/Sade” — pulls it down, revealing Riccardo Hernandez’s bare set of a once-stately interior so decrepit it appears uninhabitable (and, given the absence of furniture, uninhabited). Toward evening’s end, half the floor becomes unmoored and the ceiling crumbles. By then, it is no longer very clear whether Serrand is directing “The Miser” or some hybrid of “Gotterdammerung” and “Fall of the House of Usher.”

Certainly, Moliere’s original is deeply cynical, but this apocalyptic version seems less interested in satirizing social mores and false values than demonstrating some deep, accusatory loathing of humanity in general.

Agnew’s vocal airiness suggests a form of retardation; worse is fellow ingenue Mariane (Maggie Chestovich) arrives — played (in the evening’s least bearable turn) not as innocent but infantilized, with pigtails and baby-talk.

A third female figure, matchmaker Frosine (Barbara Kingsley), is made to look as ghastly as possible. (Funny-grotesque is one thing, but this production insists on a look somewhere between catatonic, homeless and cadaverous, though Sonya Berlovitz’s costumes show some wit.) She, like the younger two, is frequently smacked around.

Serrand also makes sure it does not escape our notice that the show’s only African-American thesp, David Rainey as cook Jacques, is made to get on all fours, imitate a dog and get beaten for his trouble.

Several such moments clearly aren’t meant to be funny. Yet the discomfort they cause rises more from embarrassment than horror, because Serrand & co. don’t really justify the brutalist approach. Yes, greed is bad, and its compulsion can verge on insanity; the poor are abused, the rich uncaring. But this show needs something more, perhaps a specific slant of contempo relevance, to support treating the basic text as some sort of more-garrulous-than-usual Beckett purgatory. This “Miser” is dark in an affected, fashionable sense rather than a clearly contextualized one.

Which is not to say the Miser himself, Epps’ Harpagon, is without merit. Credited with conceiving the show alongside Serrand, Epps provides an unusually antic, even frenzied elder, forever chasing around delusional thieves or racing to double-check the safety of his buried treasure chest. He definitely has his moments, but they would have been more plentiful had thesp and director reined in sheer indulgence. Sudden vocal-register changes, archly delayed double-takes, too many crotch-thrustings and other attenuated bits of business seem more self-congratulatory than pointed.

Similarly, Harpagon’s flunky La Fleche (Nathan Keepers) is encouraged toward acrobatic contortions that signify little. Coming off somewhat better is Stephen Cartmell’s Cleante, whiny would-be rebel against his father’s tyranny. Lichtscheidl’s disguised aristocrat is all the funnier for his relative economy of gesture and mugging.

Longtime Jeune Lune scribe Ball’s adaptation is scatological with a vengeance, scoring some coups (i.e., the coinage “stepmotherfucker”) but growing tiresome after a while. Moliere was rude indeed, but this text seems almost pathologically attentive to matters of the fundament. As with so much else here, the intent is to shock, but the effect is overkill.

The Miser

Berkeley Rep Roda Theater, Berkeley, Calif.; 650 seats; $59 top

Production

A Theatre de la Jeune Lune production, in association with Berkeley Repertory Theater, American Repertory Theater and Actors Theater of Louisville, of a play in two acts by Moliere, conceived by Steven Epp and Dominique Serrand, adapted by David Ball. Directed by Serrand.

Creative

Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Sonya Berlovitz; lighting, Marcus Dilliard; sound, David Remedios; production stage manager, Glenn D. Klapperich. Opened May 17, 2006. Reviewed May 30. Runs through June 25. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Elise - Sarah Agnew Cleante - Stephen Cartmell Mariane, Dame Claude - Maggie Chestovich Harpagon - Steven Epp La Fleche - Nathan Keepers Frosine - Barbara Kingsley Valere - Jim Lichtscheidl Master Jacques - David Rainey Anselme - GreyWolf
With: Kate Austen-Groen, Larkin Boero, Brianne Kostielney, Brian Stevens, Marian Wagner, Clive Worsley.

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