Moliere in Hollywood | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Moliere in Hollywood 

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THE MISANTHROPE

Goodman Theatre

When I think of Shakespeare I think perfect. I mean, Hamlet may have something wrong with it, theoretically, but I don't know what it is. Hamlet's Hamlet; it's not something you pick apart, it's something you discover. It has its own completeness. Its own necessity. There's no second-guessing it. It's just a masterpiece.

You'd think you could say the same about Moliere. But you can't. Or I can't, anyway. Maybe it's a cultural bias of mine--a reaction to his foreignness as a Frenchman; or to his "lightness" as a comic writer, comedy seeming somehow more provisional than serious drama--but I don't consider him as perfect as Shakespeare. His masterpieces are masterpieces, all right, but they don't feel inevitable. You can pick them apart.

Look at The Misanthrope. What a great comedy. Moliere discovered, isolated, and dissected a classic type in his title character, Alceste: the moral bigot who has insight enough to realize that society runs on lies, but who's too fatuous to acknowledge the lies he tells himself. The Misanthrope bounces along, brilliant and merciless, for a full four acts, while Alceste allows his little bit of knowledge to become a terrible thing--ruining him financially, alienating him from his friends, trivializing his ideals, and finally pushing him so deeply into his moral hole that he can't climb out.

But then comes act five.

Now all through the play, Alceste has been tormenting himself and everyone else over Celimene, his inamorata, whom he suspects of infidelity. If true love is finding someone to share your hell, Celimene looks to be Alceste's ideal soulmate: a flirt and a gossip with a flair for playing social-sexual games, she excels at everything he claims to despise.

Still, it's never actually proved that she does anything more than flatter other men--until act five, when a couple of her would-be suitors show up with incriminating (and supremely dishy) letters she wrote to each of them, and she's exposed as the duplicitous tramp she truly is.

That point--the point at which Celimene gets hers--is the point at which The Misanthrope breaks down; the point at which, masterpiece though it is, it ceases to be inevitable and necessary and perfect. Because that's the point at which Moliere stops shredding social lies and starts telling them instead, lapsing into the usual misogynist cliches about the inconstancy of women. It's as if the guy suddenly lost his will to be a genius; as if he suddenly got bored and said, Let's wrap this thing up any way that works--and simply plugged in the shtick at hand.

The play's certainly not wrecked by this lapse: Moliere being cheap is a thousand times wittier and more telling than practically anyone else being incandescent. The recitation of Celimene's letters is a wonderfully icky piece of business, and Alceste goes on to seal his folly with a gesture that's both perfectly tragic and absolutely ridiculous.

But this Celimene problem remains, something for directors to contend with--especially in times like ours, when we're all supposed to be at least interested in rejecting old lies and easy conventions about women.

I don't know if Robert Falls was thinking about the Celimene Problem when he decided to set his Goodman Theatre production of The Misanthrope in present-day Hollywood. I don't think he was. Nothing I saw in the program notes mentions it, and there are plenty of other good reasons for the update--not the least of them being the neat correspondence between movieland shits and their 17th-century French fop forebears. As Falls writes in Onstage, the Goodman Subscriber newsletter: "You know the old saying about the snake in the grass? Well, in Hollywood the snakes are right there on the sidewalk. . . . There's no doubt in my mind that the world of agents, actors, screenwriters and producers provides a perfect modern analogue to Moliere's world."

No, Falls probably wasn't thinking about solving the Celimene Problem. But he solved it just the same. Recast as an ambitious minor movie star, the Goodman Celimene doesn't manipulate men for the simple, devious, female fun of it. She does it to get ahead in business.

That may sound tawdry, and it basically is. But it's also a major improvement on Moliere's prototype. It means that Celimene's faithlessness is no longer a function of gender, but of impulses common to an entire industry--more: to an entire class, culture, and ethos. It means that neither she nor her faults can be dismissed as merely feminine.

Which, in turn, means two things. First, that she becomes a much more potent object of satire, representing a greatly expanded field of nastiness; and second, that she becomes a much more sympathetic character, representing a greatly deepened pool of humanity. It's an odd phenomenon, really: saved from Moliere's sexist stereotype, Celimene develops simultaneously into a stronger symbol and more vivid person.

So strong and vivid, in fact, that she helps transform our vision of Alceste--who comes off damningly, here, as a dilettante and poseur.

Everything about this production enforces that vision. Kim Cattrall plays Celimene slinky and tough, but also slightly edgy, as if she were trying her not-quite-bitchy-enough best to keep a complicated act from falling apart. Next to her genuine desperation, David Darlow's operatic sufferings as Alceste look every bit as puerile--yet calculated--as they should.

Costume designer Susan Hilferty adds a crumpled-raincoat-and-jeans ensemble to emphasize our sense of Alceste's carefully contrived insouciance, while William Brown offers the contrast of his normality as Alceste's pal, Philinte. There are brilliant little gestures throughout--like the one where Alceste waxes beatific over a Jacques Brel album, betraying at once his true depth of feeling and his inability to keep those feelings from turning false. George Tsypin's massive set, meanwhile, looks like it could crush everybody involved. As it should.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Leonard.

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