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THEATER REVIEW

Overabundant 'Miser'

The Tony-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune gives Moliere's comedy a very strenuous outing at the La Jolla Playhouse.

October 18, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — Harpagon, the title character of Moliere's 1668 comedy "The Miser," is a rich man, by most accounts, yet destitute in what matters most. He pinches pennies until they scream -- a chorus of despair taken up by the hungry, ill-clothed dependents of his household.

This miserliness is given vivid form in a version of the play by Minneapolis' Theatre de la Jeune Lune, hosted by La Jolla Playhouse. Referring to his hoarded money with a childish "It's mine," Steven Epp's Harpagon can barely squeeze the words out of his mouth, as if letting go of even that much could cost him too dearly.

Recipient of this year's Tony Award as outstanding regional theater, Theatre de la Jeune Lune is known for its mastery of physical theater. Founded in 1978 by French and Minnesotan confreres who all studied at the Paris theater school of mime and movement master Jacques Lecoq, the outfit works in a full-body performing style informed by mime, acrobatics, commedia dell'arte, clowning and more.

This approach meshes perfectly with "The Miser," filled as it is with character types and story devices that emerged from Moliere's fascination with the comedies of ancient Rome and the antic improvisations of commedia dell'arte.

Yet while the production is a visual marvel, so strenuously performed that the mere act of watching it proves exhausting, it proves wearying -- at three hours -- in other ways as well.

The romantic maneuverings of Harpagon's marriage-age children occupy the slow-building first minutes of David Ball's adaptation, giving theatergoers an opportunity to study Riccardo Hernandez's set. Harpagon's once-grand chateau has fallen into disrepair. Swags of plastic sheeting droop through gaping holes in the roof, and the towering, once-white walls are stained and bubbling from exposure to the elements.

As for Harpagon's children: The poor, motherless wretches are worse than neglected; they show signs of emotional abuse. Daughter Elise (Sarah Agnew) speaks in a high, quavering voice and, stripped of self-confidence, she is stooped and awkward.

Son Cleante (Stephen Cartmell), on the other hand, is a rebel, though a particularly childish one who loves to fling his arms about and behave melodramatically. And while Elise, like the servants, has resigned herself to cheap tatters of clothing (costumes by Sonya Berlovitz), Cleante has borrowed enough money to dress like a reactionary 1980s punk rocker, in a 17th century French-style coat and trousers constructed of fashionably declasse faded denim.

When Epp appears as Harpagon, his face is deathly white, which helps to disguise his lean, compact body in a moral as well as physical sickliness. Tragedy turns to comedy, then veers toward tragedy again as Epp, in dismissing a servant, yanks open the waistband of the man's pants and sticks his face halfway inside, searching for items that may have been stolen, or when the miserly master orders his bath prepared with rainwater sent cascading from one of the drooping ceiling tarps.

Enjoyable to behold, the clownish Jeune Lune approach -- directed here by company co-founder Dominique Serrand -- saps too much humanity from a story already sorely lacking it. The performances -- which also include deft turns by Jim Lichtscheidl as Elise's tempestuous secret lover, Barbara Kingsley as a tough old marriage broker, Remo Airaldi as a portly, pompous servant and Nathan Keepers as a crafty, rat-like valet -- are so much larger than life that they all but break with reality. Viewer empathy seeps away.

The story's parsimonious tone grew from Moliere's own troubles at the time. Certain of his plays, including "Tartuffe," had run afoul of moralists and had been banned. "The Miser" reflected an overall meanness of spirit that Moliere saw festering in parts of King Louis XIV's France.

Some things, alas, never change.

*

`The Miser'

Where: La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, Revelle College Drive at La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Nov. 13

Price: $29 to $52

Contact: (858) 550-1010 or www.LaJollaPlayhouse.com

Running time: 3 hours

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