Alceste, the misanthrope in Moliere's famous play, is actually too gregarious to be one.
In the inventive new production of "The Misanthrope" at South Coast Repertory, John Vickery plunges into the role, making clear that, for Alceste, moral outrage is the most energizing tonic in the world. This Alceste absolutely requires an audience for his theatrical harangues against the insufficiently ethical behavior he sees everywhere. Performing his outrage is at least as important as feeling it. And it's certainly more fun.
Vickery last played a combustible theater-type in "The Sisters Rosensweig" on Broadway, and that is also what he plays here, because director David Chambers sets Moliere's play backstage at a Paris repertory company during the Nazi occupation. Alceste and his crowd are now actors (when you first see them, they are rehearsing "The Misanthrope" in full 17th-Century regalia).
Chambers applies his conception gently: Hitler's barking can faintly be heard between scene changes, and the sounds of Maurice Chevalier and other vehemently nonchalant singers of the era float through the evening. Without overemphasis, certain aspects of the play naturally rise to meet their new setting--such as when the characters note that "every lackey's on the honor list" or when Arsinoe attempts to seduce Alceste with talk of favors from friends in high places.
Initially, it's hard to figure out why Alceste's friends put up with him--the excitable moralizer who sees almost every human act as a potential soapbox. And he attracts a lot of people: his gentle, good friend Philinte (Richard Frank), the \o7 tres \f7 glamorous coquette Celimene (Lynnda Ferguson), and, for that matter, every other lady in the play.
What do they see beneath all that bluster? A true integrity? A fond heart? While we don't get a full answer, Vickery's Alceste is certainly entertaining. He keeps his nose literally in the air and controls all conversation with his booming voice and clipped diction (sounding very much like George Sanders, the actor who was cynicism personified in movies like "All About Eve"). But he never lifts the blanket and lets you peep under to see the heart or the fear that drives Alceste's tireless crusading.
The lead actresses show that it is possible to be hurt in Moliere's brilliantly articulate and artificial world. In one great cat-fight scene, Celimene and the jealous Arsinoe (Cindy Katz) tell each other all the nasty things that "others" have been saying about them. They both land polished blows that bring barely perceptible flinches from their targets. These women expose the blood pulsing behind bloodless facades; the scene is a delicate high-wire act, breathtakingly nuanced.
As Philinte, Frank (who, coincidentally, took over Vickery's "Sister Rosensweig" role here in L.A.) is an appealing philosophical yin to his friend's hyperventilating yang. The comic duo Clitandre (Ron Boussom) and Acaste (Bill Mondy) charge the stage as visually over-conceptualized fops: Clitandre sports a fluffy blond wig, Swifty Lazar glasses and a floor-length mink; the pink-pantalooned Acaste can't walk without prancing and pointing both index fingers ahead to wherever he is going. They preen outrageously, insisting that their scene become hilarious until it actually does.
But Chambers' interpretation of the play raises questions that the text cannot be made to answer. How could Alceste, the consummate moralist, for instance, justify entertaining the invading Nazis? Set designer Ralph Funicello helps divert any such nagging thoughts. He has created a backstage area as it could look only to someone who passionately loves the theater--everything, even the wayward rack of costumes and the ropes and winches off to the side have a romantic glow. So does the welcoming warm yellow light that Chris Parry has designed to spill from the stage doorman's room.
The willowy Ferguson shows that she knows what a slinky gown is for, and costumer Shigeru Yaji supplies a parade of them with bare backs and draped sleeves. Ferguson poses with the dignity of someone who is sure of her effect. Her promiscuous desire for attention through her gowns and clever gossip is the equivalent of Alceste's need to rant and rave.
This production helps answer Philinte's very good question--why should Alceste love Celimene when her superficial ways are so at odds with the behavior he prescribes for humankind?
One could fall in love with this Celimene simply by watching Ferguson pause during a heated argument to examine a speck on the long black sleeve of her red velvet gown. As Moliere well knows, one pose alone says more on the subject of attraction than all of the glittering rationale Alceste can provide.
\o7 * "The Misanthrope," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesday-Saturday,\f7 8\o7 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends Feb. 12. $26-$36. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.\f7
John Vickery: Alceste
Richard Frank: Philinte
Lynnda Ferguson: Celimene
Art Koustik: Basque
Luck Hari: Eliante
Ron Boussom: Clitandre
Bill Mondy: Acaste
Don Took: Guard
Cindy Katz: Arsinoe
John Ellington: Dubois
A South Coast Repertory production. By Moliere. Directed by David Chambers. Translated by Richard Wilbur. Sets by Ralph Funicello. Costumes by Shigeru Yaji. Lighting by Chris Parry. Sound by Garth Hemphill. Choreography by Sylvia C. Turner. Production manager Michael Mora.