Has anyone hit the nail on the head about the human race as accurately as Molière did in The Misanthrope? His 1666 comedy of manners' chief triumph is that it points out all the shallow vanity, the empty flattery and the hypocrisy in society, while at the very same time saving the hardest hammering for the self-righteous, moralizing critics who rail against it.
David Grindley's production of The Misanthrope dares to let an audience find the modern resonance in Molière's masterpiece, rather than thrusting it upon them with camera-phones and references to Twitter. It neatly illustrates both the pleasures and the perils in such a straight-forward approach, however, as its solidness is matched by a stuffiness – and actors stuck in gorgeous, but stifling costumes that seem to wear them rather than vice versa.
The fine cast is led by a furious Ben Carlson as Alceste, the human-hater of the title who rails against the faux amis of the court of Louis XIV and believes one should "be sincere, and never part with any word that isn't from the heart."
Despite this problematic philosophy, Alceste is in love with Célimène, a purveyor of snark nonpareil played to perfection by a delightful Sara Topham. She huffs and puffs in a delicious dress that makes her look like a pink-grapefruit soda with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.
In her harsh (and hilarious) criticisms of ostensible friends, Célimène illustrates that long before there were anonymous Internet handles to hide us, there were always backs to berate behind. That she's not as cautious as she should be in her caustic castigation, however, is apparent even in her interior decoration – the period paintings hanging behind the chandeliers of her salon are of rumours being whispered.
Alceste may adore Célimène so intensely – he's seen sniffing her fan in the opening scene here – because she takes him to task in public the way she does others in private. "What other people think, he can't abide; whatever they say, he's on the other side," she says of his contrariness. "He lives in deadly terror of agreeing; 'twould make him seem an ordinary being."
This is from American poet Richard Wilbur's 1955 classic-in-itself verse translation, which like Grindley's direction lets an audience find their own handholds. His best lines please twice: first, with their surface wit, then with their enduring applicability. (Ironically, even a relatively recent updated adaptation like Martin Crimp's feels more dated than this reverent one.) Brian Bedford was originally supposed to direct and co-star in this Misanthrope, but he was sidelined in these roles by the extension of his production The Importance of Being Earnest on Broadway and then by illness. In terms of his acting absence, Bedford's understudy Peter Hutt is no disappointment: His amateur poet Oronte is all teeth, which he either unsheathes slowly in insipid smiles or grinds with a grimace when Alceste sets upon his sonnets.
Steve Ross and Trent Pardy make brief but memorable appearances as a pair of other suitors of Célimène, Clitandre and Acaste, who both fall into giggling fits when Célimène swipes at others, but who possess remarkably thin skins themselves. Baby-faced Pardy's parting shot – when Acaste discovers Célimène's tongue cuts both ways – is wonderfully wounded. "Far choicer hearts than yours, as you'll discover, would like this little Marquess as a lover," he says, leaving in indignation.
Kelli Fox is wonderful as Arsinoé, Célimène's backstabbing buddy – their face-off is the most pleasurable scene in the play, while Juan Chioran exudes sophisticated sincerity as Alceste's fair-and-foul-weather friend Philinte, who navigates the aristocratic seas with a common-sense compass. (His equally equanimous female counterpart Eliante, however, is played by Martha Farrell with a colloquial delivery that sounds out-of-place.) That Philinte's yearning for Eliante is more clearly communicated and more involving than Alceste's for Célimène probably shouldn't be the case. Carlson's Alceste is, ultimately, not terribly fun to be around or all that funny; it's an odd complaint, but I found myself wishing his characterization was more of a caricature.
This is nevertheless a lovely production that makes it seem as if little has changed between the times of Louis XIV and ours. Unlike Alceste, Molière loves mankind with its warts and all – and you may leave feeling the same way. This is a welcome spirit lifter.
The Misanthrope continues at Stratford through Oct. 29.
- Written by Molière
- Directed by David Grindley
- Starring Ben Carlson, Sara Topham
- At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont.