"Trust the words," advises the poet Richard Wilbur in the introductory note to his translation of Moliere's The Misanthrope. "A fussy anxiety on the part of the director, whereby the dialogue is hurried, cut, or swamped in farcical action, is the commonest cause of failure in productions of Moliere. To such want of confidence in the text we owe the occasional presentation of the fops, Acaste and Clitandre, as flouncingly epicene . . . [a presentation in which] the characters are falsified for the sake of an easy laugh . . . "
I doubt that Wilbur would approve of Michael Barto's staging of The Misanthrope. Presented as part of Bailiwick Repertory's gay- and lesbian-oriented Pride Performance Series, Barto's Misanthrope maintains, sort of, the original setting of Moliere's play (17th-century France). But it places the story of a moralistic man's love for an unfaithful woman in an all-male homosexual context, in which not only Acaste and Clitandre but just about everyone else is more than "flouncingly epicene"--they're flaming queens.
Barto's production is spotty. But when it works, it's quite amusing as an in-group entertainment aimed at gay audiences. Despite the radical change in gender, Barto for the most part follows Wilbur's advice. Eschewing elaborate theatrical gimmicks in favor of simple stage compositions that emphasize dialogue over action, Barto trusts the text to make its points, wittily and perceptively. And it does.
First produced in 1666, The Misanthrope tells of Alceste, a self-righteous ethicist whose insistence on intellectual rigor and honesty makes him a laughingstock, a loner, and the defendant in a libel suit. The flaw in Alceste's moral fiber is his passion for Celimene, whose superficial grace and beauty barely mask a fickle, shallow, selfish nature. Alceste's alertness for hypocrisy is overcome by his obsession with Celimene's apparent innocence; so while overreacting to the petty compromises and minor vices of his other acquaintances, he debases himself with his commitment to a person everyone else knows is a two-timer and a bit of a bitch to boot.
Around this plot Moliere constructs a satiric portrait of upper-class gossipiness and greed that allows the writer to have his cake and eat it too. Entertaining a group of suitors, Celimene leads a session of stingingly vicious mockery of absent friends. Alceste is enraged by his beloved's obvious two-facedness, yet he can't bring himself to believe it applies to him as well, even when he finds himself in open competition with the despised social butterflies Acaste, Clitandre, and Oronte.
By making Celimene a man, Barto sacrifices the ingredient of distance between the sexes in the scenes in which Celimene toys with those who compete for his attention. But Barto has great fun with the flamboyant attitude-mongering of his characters, and the actors' bitchy delivery of the brittle bons mots draws plenty of laughs. So do the occasional anachronisms that Barto drops into the text--a snort of coke here, a "Miss Thing" there--as well as the eye-poppingly outrageous costumes by Faye Fisher-Ward, which evoke the 17th century with their flounces and feathers while toying with the present in their androgynous elegance.
The best performances come from supporting actors. Bruce Orendorf is juicily silly as Oronte, the poetic poseur who solicits Alceste's opinion of his verse--and then wishes he hadn't. Paul Winberg's dizzy, dishy Clitandre and Brian Goodman's sultry Acaste make an entertaining pair whose sexual rivalry both divides and unites them. And J. Scott Ament is all frayed, funny nerves as Arsinoe, the prudish busybody whose lust for Alceste makes him try to expose Celimene's infidelities.
Kevin Theis's athletic, farcical Alceste sets the production's tone of light lampoonery as he grovels before John Braun's painted, bemused Celimene (though Barto misses a good laugh when he lets this Celimene's claims to be 20 pass without challenge).
At its best, this Misanthrope cleverly evokes past and present as it uses the formality of Moliere's verse (in Wilbur's translation) to suggest the affectations of a certain breed of gay male; some scenes could just as easily be taking place in the bathroom of the Vortex disco as in the salon of Celimene's Parisian mansion. Still, one wonders why Barto didn't take the concept further and use the different characters to explore clashing notions of identity between the radical, moderate, and reactionary elements of the current gay community.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.