The hypocrisies of social behavior, the irrationality of love and the fleeting pleasures of excess: Heady themes in any age. The stuff that theatrical dreams are made of.
And yet, it is the skewering of those very tropes that adds dimension to the human experience. Good theater, it can then be argued, serves as the banana peel of life because it allows us to laugh at our own foibles while cringing at the effects of the fall.
With that in mind, something wickedly beguiling is prancing across the stage at the NMSU Center for the Arts, sprinkled liberally with just such mordancy. In fact, there hasn’t been this much high camp being dished out by the American Southwest Theater Company since “The Rocky Horror Show” swaggered and flounced through the 2012-2013 season at Hershel Zohn Theater.
The piece in question is Moliere’s 15th century farce “The Misanthrope,” written as a satire of the French aristocracy and a shrewd indictment against social insincerity by one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature. Here, the proceedings, while staying linguistically fixated on the script, have been time warped into the 80s visually. The result is an ingenious piece of frippery, which, at its heart, is a scathing indictment against fawning duplicity and unctuousness – gossip is bad, m-kay? – while at the same time exhibiting an anachronistic dismissal for historical accuracy.
“The Misanthrope,” as envisioned by associate professor Josh Chenard, is a 15th century “Mean Girls,” awash in the Technicolor palate of Walt Disney. It is what 1999’s “Cruel Intentions” was to “Dangerous Liaisons,” with a cast of beautiful young performers chewing scenery and milking every ounce of lewd innuendo from the saucy French script against a backdrop of Top 40 music from the “I want my MTV” Decade. It is, essentially, an academic treatise on hypocrisy wrapped in the confectionary trappings of a New Wave music video.
From the wonderfully simple set – utilizing forced perspective as envisioned by a surrealist to give the impression of grandeur – to the dazzling Marie Antoinette meets “Showgirls” costumes and papier-mâché wigs, this version of Moliere’s masterpiece is a stunning feast for the eyes. The opening scene, in which every character of the play enters holding a portrait frame, then steps out of the frame to become a living breathing person is fantastically inspired. The intriguing use of lighting, particularly in the final scene of the play, but also throughout ,when characters are seen pantomiming in the background “hallways” of the female protagonist’s palatial salon, is equally delightful.
It is the performances, however, that elevate this contemporary mishmash of styles into theatrical nirvana. Joshua Horton is measured and nuanced as Alceste, the misanthrope of the piece, whose painful insistence on truth and honesty often reduce him to strident pedagogy. Anthony Forrester’s Philante, Alceste’s confidant, is amiably exasperated and quietly bemused, the perfect eye-rolling foil to Alceste’s punctiliousness. It is interesting to note that both of these actors, despite the trappings of their characters and the over-the-top characterizations that surround them, anchor the action with singular masculine subtlety from which the others can spin and reel.
High on that list is Austin Parrish, who pulls out all the stops as the foppish dandy poet Oronte, whose every utterance is a grand pantomime and who wears his displeasures on his lacy, perfumed sleeve like a bouquet of imagined persecution and indignation. He flounces, he titters, he swoons and he gasps with effortless abandon, making the best of what is essentially a small, though pivotal, role with relish.
Ellen Striepeke as Celimene is the perfect, vain, self-indulgent ingénue, displaying youthful disregard for courtly decorum, while harboring a cunning mastery for game play. She shines in the moments when she must match wits with her exasperated lover Alceste, putting him easily in his place when he resorts to uncompromising priggishness.
The banana peel of her performance is the delightfully ugly scene in which she entertains her suitors with gossip and criticism of courtly manners, dismissing Alceste when he points out the harshness of her hypocrisy.
The entrance of Lindsey Porter as Arsinoe, a woman of the court and Celimene’s reviled frenemy, at the beginning of Act II, adds another layer of comedic nuance and enchantment. Portraying the virginally prudish “older” woman, with a desperate need for the attention of the sterner sex, as a vamping cougar is enchanting, though her obvious charms and winking beauty make it hard to believe that she would be underappreciated by the ass-slapping horn dogs of the French court. Still, she is a delight to watch, with more priceless nuances than is usually expected from a supporting role.
The infamous scene between Celimene and Arsinoe, in which they trade barbs – pointing out each other’s flaws with seeming disdain for the people of the court who insist on discussing them – is classic catfight dressed in the robes of civility. It becomes clear early on that every square-off between two strong women that has ever graced the stage or screen over the past 350 years owes its allegiance to this pivotal moment. Both actresses are more than up for the challenge, dispatching it easily with nuance, charm and sneeringly delicious bitchiness.
Also notable among the standouts is Stephanie Vasquez, who replaces Celimene’s manservant with a saucy French maid whose silent hijinks – punctuated by squeals, sighs and giggles – serve as both feather duster-wielding comic relief during the more histrionic moments and bumbling stage hand, moving furniture between scenes. Though she has very few lines, she easily steals the show whenever she makes an appearance.
Doubling as Alceste’s manservant DuBois, Vasquez raises the tedious exposition concerning her master’s imminent arrest into screwball absurdism. It’s a wonder her co-stars were able to keep a straight face. This young lady deserves an award for turning what is essentially a throw-away role into a memorable piece of comic achievement.
Rounding out the cast are Robert Sciortino as pretentious popinjay Clitandre, Elizabeth Staski, as Celimene’s “lesser” cousin Eliante and Kenneth Williams as the shallow marquess Acaste. Each brings a freshness to his or her role, with deep characterizations in stock parts. Staski, in particular, charms as the second choice of Alceste’s heart, exhibiting doe-eyed wonder, and coquettish pleasure, when Philinte surprises her by professing his love for her.
Director Chenard sums up this bravura presentation admirably in his director’s notes, when he compares Moliere’s comedy of manners to an amusement park from his youth, pointing out the duality of “joyous chaos” with “over-indulgence” and “debauchery.” “That duality is on full display throughout the Misanthrope,” he says. “Cruelty disguised as kindness, vulgarity wrapped in elegance, overzealous declarations masking fearful realizations… all existing in a blistering, abstract world complete with poetic language, vibrant costumes, heightened reality and even a few songs…” Never has a director’s intentions been summed up quite so succinctly in two paragraphs.
All in all, this latest production by the student thespians of NMSU’s theater department is a satisfying romp that transports its audience into the classic realm of banana peel hilarity, with enough dazzling showmanship to make the inevitable crushing dénouement not only palatable, but immensely satisfying. Kudos to Professor Chenard for yet another daring reinterpretation of a celebrated classic, as well as to a promising new crop of theatrical virtuosos.
The Misanthrope is a production of the American Southwest Theater Company on the New Mexico State University Campus, performed at the NMSU Center for the Arts, 1000 E. University Ave., April 18 through May 4, 2014. Tickets are $10-17 and available at the Center for the Arts Box office Monday through Friday between the hours of 12-4 p.m., through Ticketmaster, or by calling 646-4515 or 646-1420. Performance times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. For more information, including videos about the process of creating the production, visit www.nmsutheatre.com.