Friday, September 28, 2007

Glass Houses

"The Misanthrope" at New York Theatre Workshop, September 22, 2007

Ivo Van Hove, acclaimed for his Obie-winning production of "Hedda Gabler" at NYTW, returns with Tony Harrison's translation of Moliere's "The Misanthrope." This evening of mixed media, as well as mixed condiments and street garbage, is quite a visual and aural effort. Whether it really succeeds or not remains to be seen.

Bill Camp as Alceste, is a man obsessed with being "always truthful" as a means to rail against the norms of society, regardless of the cost. He is in the midst of a highly passionate affair with Celimene (Jeanine Serralles), who maintains a certain haughtiness as the object of desire and perfection to many, and likes it that way. Alceste's friend Philinte (Thomas Jay Ryan) supports him, but urges moderation. He tells him that Celimene's cousin Eliante (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) also loves Alceste, and would be a much more stabilizing force in his life than the mercurial Celimene. Philinte is also in love with Eliante, but puts his friend's need ahead of his own.

Oronte (Alfredo Narcis0) arrives with a love poem he's written to a woman he's just met. Wanting Alceste's opinion, he reads the mediocre verse. Philinte is kind and complimentary. Alceste at first obfuscates to be kind, but when Oronte pushes, he is eviscerated by Alceste and storms out insulted.

Everyone seems to be involved in some sort of lawsuit or other, when Acaste (Joan Macintosh) and Clitandre (Jason C. Brown) arrive with food. Acaste is a reviewer - one who delivers an opinion to the mindless masses. Clitandre is Celimene's attorney, with whom she has been flirting to keep his attention on her lawsuit. Alceste dives right into the food - literally - smearing himself in chocolate syrup and ketchup, potato chips and crackers. (Other than to make a spectacle of himself in this Gallagher-esque moment, I'm still not sure why.) This is the beginning of the degeneration of the relationship ship with Celimene. Not only has she been flirting with Clitandre, but is in an affair with Oronte. It is for her that his poem was written.

Arsinoe (Amelia Campbell) arrives and takes Celimene to task for her actions and association with Alceste. Seems she is jealous of Celimene's accomplishments at such a young age.

The affair is revealed, Alceste is enraged, the set is trashed, the lovers reconcile as their passion overcomes the garbage.

Mr. Harrison's translation is not just into English, but is in rhyme. This verse style forces a formality over which Mr. Van Hove has juxtaposed a colorless environment. Jan Versweyveld's set is primarily gray with black glass walls and fluorescent lighting. Emilio Sosa's costumes bring a level of androgyny with all characters barefoot in dark suits and white shirts. The color arrives first in the food brought in by Acaste and Clitandre, green apples, pink-iced donuts, pizza, chocolate, ketchup, hot dogs. Later it is in the bags of garbage dragged in from the street during Alceste's and Celimene's confrontation. I suppose the subtext is that what brings color to our lives can also be the garbage that is the end product of consumption.

The multi-media facet of this production was particularly interesting, using at least three cameras broadcasting on large monitors on the back wall of the set. The cameras follow the actors backstage into the dressing room, and even onto the street as witness to the fight. This is the third time this year I've seen use of cameras, "Frost/Nixon" and "The Spanish Play." The latter was to rather disappointing effect, while the former seemed only to nail a single moment .

Mr. Van Hove's use here make me wonder though - is this still theatre, or has he turned it into television? He does use the cameras to great effect, providing close-ups at pivotal moments, as well as exposition, such as when Alceste tells of discovering Celimene's infidelity, there is a black and white image of her biting his hand. Ultimately, I did think the camera's undercut the moment by focusing on passers by on the street as Celimene tries to hail a cab to get away from Alceste.

The cast is strong overall. Mr. Camp is one of the most fully committed actors I've seen on stage. Ms. Serralles, last seen in "The Black Eyed" at NYTW shows much more range here from passionate to petulant. Mr. Ryan's Philinte is caring and concerned. Mr. Narciso's Oronte combusts with callow youth.

It is a long show - two hours with no intermission. That said, the performances are compelling and the audience was fully engaged.

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