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When I started thinking about how to review Jean Cocteau Repertory’s new production of Moliere’s The Miser, I spent awhile mulling over something serious to structure my thoughts around, something going on in current affairs or some deep literary concept one could say runs through it. Maybe if I spent a little longer I would have come up with something, but when I wasn’t coming up with anything satisfactory I decided that maybe the best thing to say is that The Miser is pretty much pure Molierean silliness, and the Cocteau’s staging of it doesn’t hang troublesome political or social issues on it. The cast is abusive with each other and with the audience; the characters are vicious (hilarious) caricatures; and it’s all done in the name of getting a laugh, which it frequently does.
The plot is rather convoluted, as usual in Moliere, and also as usual that artificiality creates much of the humor. It opens with the two children of the title character (real name Harpagon, played by Cocteau favorite Angus Hepburn) both having fallen in love. Elise (the lovely Taylor Wilcox) hopes to marry Valere (Albert Aeed), her father’s steward, while Cleante (Seth Duerr) has fallen for a newcomer to town, Mariane (Melanie Hopkins). Their stingy dad, however, has other plans – not only does he not want Elise marrying Valere for financial reasons (he has an old rich guy in mind for her instead), but he himself wants to marry Mariane – an affair that has been arranged by a local tart/busybody, Frosine (whose intimidating determination is embodied well in Lorinda Lisitza). Harpagon sees it as the worst sort of betrayal that his children would want anything but to marry whom he chooses for them, while they resent his penny-pinching, so needless to say, by about the second scene pretty much everyone either is in tears or is fuming over how others are preventing them from enjoying their due measure of happiness.
Numerous further plot convolutions follow upon these in good melodramatic Molierean fashion, but my feeling is always that it’s best to let you witness them for yourself – they’re not as funny when written out, for one, plus it takes away any of the surprise you might have if and when you go to the production. This translation by Charles Heron Wall has been adapted by the cast; it’s mostly kept in the traditional space, without updated clothes or switching the action to a different era (easily done), though several times the actors do use fairly modern language and references (to take a couple, Cleante chastises his father at one point with Madonna’s “Papa don’t preach!” and another time someone quotes an aphorism and wonders who first said it, receiving “Moliere, I think” as the answer). In the press notes, director Dan Zisson says that the period setting “allows the Cocteau’s production to comment on the present” by providing a certain distance, but as I said at the start, I didn’t feel there was much if any reflection on current affairs, or on much more than provoking laughter. The comedy is very slapstick, with a lot of falling down and shoving – the cast must all be covered in bruises beneath their lovely frocks and suits (nicely done by Timothy Alan Church). The show’s other main tactic for getting laughs is to engage the audience directly, sometimes even directing some of the characters’ abuse outward, as when Harpagon’s cash box is stolen and he jumps down from the stage and begins accusing everyone of knowing something about it. It seems kind of perverse that these approaches would actually come off as funny, and at some points they’re less so, but seeing people (including yourself) being brutalized, whether physically or verbally – though not with real malice – just seems to be one of those things that tickle people’s funnybones throughout the world and across time.
I often refer to productions of Moliere as “fluff” because although when he wrote in the 17th century they were scathing, even dangerous satires, they seem a lot less wicked now. Moliere’s depiction of human flaws and foibles, which have changed little over time, still resonates somewhat, but the way they’re packaged (unless the show is substantially adapted) makes them seem less relevant. None of this is to say that the Cocteau’s Miser isn’t fun to see: it runs on a little too long, but the actors are all excellent. Aeed, in particular, stood out as Valere with his natural, authentic presence, which was a breath of fresh air amongst the hyperventilating, hyperbolic rest (who are, of course, just presenting the characters as they’re written). The veteran Hepburn, for his part, brings Harpagon’s crotchetiness to life in an over-the-top manner that Moliere certainly would have appreciated. The show isn't likely to make you question the way you treat your parents or children, or your relationship to money, or anything else so highfalutin’, but as you laugh at the same things that people over three hundred years ago laughed at, it does provide a satisfying sense of kinship in humor from one era to another, and that’s a pretty cool thing to have.
The Miser is at Jean Cocteau Repertory, 330 Bowery, through March 15. Performances are Wed. 7pm, Thurs.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 3pm. Tickets via Ticket Central.