The Misanthrope

Richard Wilbur's exquisite English verse translation of Moliere's 17 th-century farce "The Misanthrope" shines through the Onstage Co.'s contemporary interpretation, despite the incomprehensible staging of director Mel Shapiro.

Richard Wilbur’s exquisite English verse translation of Moliere’s 17 th-century farce “The Misanthrope” shines through the Onstage Co.’s contemporary interpretation, despite the incomprehensible staging of director Mel Shapiro.

Set in a modern-day health club, the production features the eight-member ensemble aerobicizing for no apparent reason other than to keep their arms and legs busy while they competently give voice to Wilbur’s rhymed text.

In the character of Alceste, given a moody but multilayered portrayal by James Shanta, Moliere has created the ultimate loner who uncompromisingly rails against the superficial society that surrounds him. He disgustedly proclaims, “To be admired, one must only exist.”

Alceste’s self-righteous isolation from his peers has one exception: He is hopelessly in love with the beautiful Celimene (Lynn Clark), the most shallow of gym bunnies.

In all other matters he gives no ground, even when facing prosecution for defaming the literary pursuits of rival Oronte (Michael Hartson). Despite the good counsel of friends Philante and Eliante (James Nardini and Elizabeth Lavoie), Alceste marches single-mindedly into self-exile, rejecting even the repentant but all-too-human Celimene.

There is no illumination of Moliere’s work to be found in director Shapiro’s workout-room setting. Moliere intended the location to be Celimene’s home so that she would naturally be the center of everyone’s foppish attention or idle conversation, therefore giving added fuel to Alceste’s rages.

Instead, this talented ensemble accomplishes the neat trick of performing a whole range of irrelevant physical exercises in a neutral setting while still managing to connect with one another.

Clark offers a beguiling and sensual Celimine, even in the midst of tai chi. Hartson is a passionately focused Oronte. As the two foppish suitors, Clitandre and Acoste, Paul Ramirez and Steve Owsley dance a nice little tango while playing one-upsmanship in the Celimene-wooing wars, and Lisa Stewart is acidically comical as Arsinoe.

This maiden outing for the recently formed Onstage Co. displays some excellent talent. Artistic director Shapiro should have trusted his actors and left the aerobics to Richard Simmons.

The Misanthrope

Limelight Playhouse, North Hollywood; 45 seats; $12 top

  • Production: The Onstage Co., in association with the Limelight Playhouse, presents a comedy in five acts (no intermission) by Moliere, translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur. Director, Mel Shapiro; managing director, Bruce Blair.
  • Crew: Set, costume and mural design, Nancy Keystone; lighting design, Joe Damiano; music, Gary William Friedman. Opened June 4, 1993; reviewed June 12; closes June 27.
  • Cast: Alceste - James Shanta<br> Philinte - James Nardini<br> Oronte - Michael Hartson<br> Celimene - Lynn Clark<br> Eliante - Elizabeth Lavoie<br> Clitandre - Paul Ramirez<br> Acaste - Steve Owsley<br> Arsinoe - Lisa Stewart<br>
  • Music By: