Theater Review (NYC): ‘The Misanthrope’ by Moliere in the Park

It had been quite a while since I had seen Molière perform in the Park Molière in the park. For me, the drought was broken with the performance on Sunday afternoon The misanthrope. In the hands of this dedicated crew is Richard Wilbur’s mid-20th-century translation, as well as Molière’s comedy of manners itself. And this large, colorful outdoor production is just the sort the 17th-century playwright’s work needs today.

The characters are timeless. Gabriel Ebert (a Tony Award winner for Mathilde) and Maechi Aharanwa offer performances of broader comedic intensity than Alceste and Célimène, respectively. They lead a consistently strong cast in this tale of a quarrelsome man fed up with the hypocrisy and corruption of the aristocracy but enmeshed in his love for a glamorous society butterfly.

Directed by Lucie Tiberghien, the cast brilliantly integrates Wilbur’s iambic pentameter rhymes into a sitcom-wide acting style that nonetheless feels natural — or “natural,” anyway. They perform in the round, with a set that’s essentially just a bed, and smear their lines with humor and over-the-top theatrics that drew me in. The serious topic is not lost, but is conveyed with a heaping spoonful of sugar.

As Alceste’s friend Philinte (the excellent Margaret Ivey) reasonably points out, society couldn’t function if everyone was absolutely honest at all times. Most of humanity would despise a real Alceste. But Alceste is not wrong that corruption and dishonesty create more and more of them in an endless loop.

Towards the end, Oronte (played by Chris Henry Coffey with a nice balance of sincerity and buffoonery), Alceste’s rival and victim of his scorn, challenges Célimène to choose between suitors. She disagrees and replies that hurtful words should not be spoken publicly. The gulf between society and a misanthrope who insists on brutal honesty remains.

Ebert dominates his scenes with unrelenting resentment, Aharanwa hers with I-am-that flounce. Danaya Esperanza lends touching sensitivity to the lovesick Éliante, and Kate Siahaan-Rigg dresses the jealous Arsinoé in buttoned-up swagger and high bludgeon.

The misanthrope runs through May 25th at the LeFrak Center in Lakeside, Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Tickets are free but must be reserved on the website.

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