This show is so hysterically funny it should come with a warning label: may cause unrestrained glee and weakness in the core from laughing so hard. Your jaws might ache, but it’s a good ache, honest.
Avant Bard has a winner with this one—it’s funny with a smoothly delivered bite; brilliantly acted; and magnificently, unapologetically willing to skewer everyone. Do yourself a favor and grab tickets to this.
“A Misanthrope,” updated most thankfully irreverently by Matt Minnicino, owes its basic storyline and structure to ‘The Misanthrope’ by Moliere. But this version has been gloriously modernized/adapted and proves it is still a relevant moral fable, especially when spun through a tipsy wild weekend of the rich and aimless.
While Moliere’s venerable play was about the hypocrisy of the French aristocracy in the 17th century (and we know how that ended for them a hundred or so years later); sadly, it translates all too easily to our own time, even when set in a vacation villa in the south of France with the wealthy and their hangers-on. Some things just don’t change over the centuries, rather than, ahem, perhaps Silicon Valley or Washington, DC.
Alceste, played by Elliott Kashner, is unhappy with human beings, both in general and in the particular among his set. He finds them duplicitous and prone to fawning in public and trashing in private and is appalled by the dishonesty. Kashner is made for this role—he can do physical comedy as easily as he can spool off the rhyming couplets while sounding completely natural, if peevish in the extreme. It was almost as if a slightly shorter Benedict Cumberbatch had strolled onto the stage and was horrified to find himself awash in a sea of glad-handing and smarm. Alceste’s honesty has caused him to be sued by his “friend,” a higher up in the food chain, Oronte (a deliriously oblivious Matt Sparacino), who writes really, really bad poetry, but can rock a hat.
Seems by not loving the poem and praising it lavishly as the best sonnet every written, Alceste has put in danger his reputation, his livelihood (whatever that is, but estates can be confiscated by the courts, king, whomever…), his relationship with his sort-of fiancée, and his social standing. His best friend, Philinte (Jenna Berk), begs him to be circumspect and do what he must to defuse the situation. Alceste tries, but you can see his head about to explode as Oronte burbles out his latest creation (and he did it in only 15 minutes!) until he can no longer hold back. And we are so happy he doesn’t hold back.
Berk plays Philinte as the complete pragmatist; she’d reach across an aisle in a minute for a negotiation, even if it means compromising her values. She would be a great, feisty lobbyist unburdened by regrets or mores. But she genuinely cares about Alceste, even if she can’t understand his melancholia over the human condition, and this tension makes for some fine comedic moments between the two of them. As does their height difference; they have a really snortingly-funny slap fight at one point.
And now to the finance(?), Celimene (a luminous Thais Menendez. She’s stunning, at the height of her seductive powers, vainglorious, capricious, a match for wits with Alceste, and surprisingly honest—at least about herself. Her honesty is not the black and white honesty of Alceste, but in the end, she will remain true to herself (while rising from the ashes and trying on the mantle of feminism and I would love to see how that works out for her).
The other suitors for Celimene, are Clitandre, a fop (Patrick Joy; think rich surfer dude), and Acaste, the other fop (played in perfect new-money, entitled fashion by Tendo Nsubuga). These two gentlemen provide a sly stand-in of the upper crust at large.
There’s a sweet subplot involving Philinte and Eliante (Chloe Mikala). Will the two girls find honest love in this decadent society where to get ahead, or just get along without being noticed, one must be the perky sycophant? Chloe Mikala takes what is probably the least developed character and imbues her with a humor that twinkles.
Just to add fuel to the fire, there’s another subplot involving Celimene and her bestie, Arsinoe (Sara Barker). Arsinoe is prudish and older, and trying desperately to stay young and relevant; when she overhears some scandalous gossip involving Celimene and her coterie of male admirers, she loses no time in racing to Celimene and Alceste’s house to rub her friend’s face in the dirt while virtuously declaiming how she rose to the defense of poor Celimine. This is all a cover for her feelings for Alceste. But that’s another slight subplot.
Hannah Sweet plays two characters—Basque, Alceste’s valet, and DuBois, Celimene’s housekeeper. Unfortunately, the two characters are not quite differentiated enough for that difference to shine through, although halfway through the show, Sweet switches out her black dress and heels for pants. It eventually clicked why one character spoke much more haltingly than the other. But Sweet does a serviceable job of standing in for the 99 percent serving in close proximity to the one percent.
Director Megan Behm keeps the show moving at a fast clip and the sight gags never overstay their welcome. Under her direction, the ingenious and mostly very witty rhyming couplets flow like a conversation between the characters; there is no disconnect between the modern setting and costumes and the language.
As for the costumes—overheard while leaving, from several patrons—“We need those shorts;” “where can we get those shorts?” “I must have shorts like that.” Suffice it to say the shorts were a hit, and Alison Samantha Johnson might want to note somewhere where she got those shorts. Then there’s Alceste, the serious grown-up who eschews dishonesty and thinks insincerity is a sin, who doesn’t really do shorts. His loss.
This show is just so much fun that the audience lingered in the seats and in the playing space and in the hallway outside after the curtain call. Avant Bard has a winner with this one—it’s funny with a smoothly delivered bite; brilliantly acted; and magnificently, unapologetically willing to skewer everyone. Do yourself a favor and grab tickets to this.
Show Advisory: Lots of drinking; adult language; sexual innuendo.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Show Information: ‘A Misanthrope’ runs through June 30, 2019, at WSC Avant Bard at Gunston Hall Arts Center, Arlington, VA. For more information, please click here.