Gallery Players present top-notch production of Moliere’s ’The Misanthrope’

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Seventeenth-century France, under the rule of the "Sun King," Louis XIV, was a time when the arts flourished and the aristocracy frolicked. Gathered around the king in his palace in Versailles or back in their Parisian homes, the rich devoted themselves to courtship, entertainment and petty rivalry. Character took a backseat to dress, education and even the way one bowed.

Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere’s "The Misanthrope," now on stage at the Gallery Players, is a biting attack on the hypocrisy of this society. But, some say, the play, inspired by Moliere’s unhappy marriage to Armande Bejart, is also a broad condemnation of humanity, prone as it is to lies, flattery and witlessness.

Although Moliere (1622-1673) always wrote about "real" people - peasants, noblemen, servants, bourgeoisie - his characters were mostly types and caricatures. They drew their reality and their strength from the societies in which they lived. So Gallery Players director Yvonne Opffer Conybeare was wise to leave "The Misanthrope" set in 17th-century France.

Michael Kramer has set the stage exquisitely with his rendition of the courtyard of a fashionable Paris home, complete with stone walls, steps and even a fountain. And Christopher Anthony Vergara makes excellent use of the wardrobes of the Juilliard School and the Pearl Theater; his costumes are worthy of the Comedie Francaise.

Add to this the training on Baroque movement donated by Janice Orlandi of the Actors Movement Studio, and even the most exacting scholar of this period would find little to fault in this production.

The Gallery Players have used the excellent verse translation of poet Richard Wilbur, who has the rare ability to make rhymed couplets sound like plausible conversation. And this cast, with its perfect enunciation, makes Wilbur’s verse a pleasure to hear.

Andrew Firda plays Alceste, the misanthrope who is disgusted with the lies and flattery that surround him and vows to speak only the truth. Unfortunately, Alceste is in love with Celimene, a frivolous and faithless flirt who epitomizes everything he despises.

Christopher Johnson makes his first appearance with the Gallery Players as Alceste’s friend and confidante, Philinte, who is also amorous of the unworthy Celimene.

Add to the mix John Blaylock ("Deathtrap," "Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me," "Sleuth") as the sonnet-spouting Oronte, Heather Siobahn Curran (who directed this season’s "Deathtrap") as the pretentious prude Arsinoe, and Dana Bennison as the sweet and sincere Eliante, who is attracted to both Alceste and Philinte, and there’s enough material for several love triangles.

But Moliere, who leaves no holds barred when making his point, also presents the audience with Clitandre (Evangelos Alexiou) and Acaste (Colin Pritchard), two of Celimene’s suitors, who outdo each other in their ability to engage in meaningless gossip.

Of special note is Ron Nahoss’ hilarious buffoonery in his cameo as the Guard of the Marshalsea, who comes to warn Alceste that his case in court has not gone well and he’d better leave town in a hurry.

With war in the Persian Gulf, recession at home and terrorism here and abroad, one might think there are more important things to worry about than whether men are totally truthful and women are totally faithful. But don’t be fooled. That is precisely what Moliere is getting at.

Alceste, the misanthrope, is every bit as foolish as the fops and flirts he mocks. His honesty is his own form of pride, and his inability to recognize true virtue in people like Philinte and Eliante is his own blindness. This is not a man of any more substance than the people he scorns.

Deeply rooted in their times, Moliere’s plays nevertheless have a very real sense of the true value of life and thus transmit a universal message. Although Moliere was most definitely influenced by Italianate farce and comedies of intrigue, his innovation was to develop a comedy based on his observation of human nature with all its foibles resulting in comedies that have the lasting impact of more serious drama.

The Gallery Players have succeeded in conveying the genius that has made Moliere the father of modern French comedy, indeed, much of modern comedy in the Western world.


The Gallery Players’ production of "The Misanthrope" plays through April 13 - Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm - at 199 14th St. at Fourth Avenue in Park Slope. Tickets are $15, $12 seniors and students. For reservations, call (718) 595-0547.

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