Odd Man Out

photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow

photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Alceste, the anti-hero of Molière’s comedy “The Misanthrope,” takes the oft-repeated maxim “Honesty is the best policy” to the extreme. His more even-keeled foil Philinte counsels him, “In certain cases it would be uncouth / And most absurd to speak the naked truth,” a piece of advice which holds especially true in their mannered setting of the eighteenth-century French court.

But speak the truth Alceste does, in his every dealing with enemies, friends, and lovers, until his alienation is complete. Molière takes the prototype of that friend we all have, the perpetual pessimist, and sharpens it into a caricature that is at once biting and ludicrous. Alceste’s world is equally so, with his worst suspicions of the characters surrounding him often confirmed. How do we integrate into a world that is so deeply false and fatuous, while retaining a sense of truth and self? Court Theatre’s new production of “The Misanthrope” mounts a solid exploration of this question, weighing equally the comedic and tragic elements of Moliere’s notorious comedy of manners.

“The Misanthrope” is the first of Court’s two-production Molière Festival. “Tartuffe,” perhaps the most devilish and most famous of Molière’s comedies, picks up its run in late June. The united production design, under director Charles Newell, establishes the existence of a dark undercurrent below all those Rococo pleasantries. The color scheme throughout is a richly contrasting black and gold. Gilded scrollwork climbs up the legs of black stools. The women are clad in black corsets with lustrous frippery. A gold drape circles around a monolithic black chaise at the center of the stage.

Beyond the bold contrasts of the production’s aesthetic design was Newell’s distinct choice of cast. Alceste is the production’s single white player; the rest of Molière’s characters are played by African-American actors. In a discussion following the performance, Newell confirmed that this was done purposefully, but claimed equivocally that there was “no right or wrong answer” in terms of the interpretation. The racial asymmetry of the cast did not levy an enormous effect on the ethos of the performance except, perhaps, to emphasize Alceste’s apartness, to suggest a fundamental disconnect with the society that surrounds him.

photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow

photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Newell expressed his intention to render Alceste with a bit less aloof Sturm und Drang (as is the traditional French interpretation) and a bit more self-deprecating humor. There are moments in the script where Alceste is patently ridiculous, and he realizes it. Newell sought to bring those moments to light, as well as the comedic high points of other characters. Oronte, the haughty courtier, recites his terrible sonnet to a background of corny jazz. Arsinoé, the moralizing spinster, is played in drag by a male actor to give “her” a heightened layer of theatricality. The audience reacted well to these additions, which deftly augment a classic play that remains remarkably funny. Molière’s work endures because it less lampoons its historical moment than lambasts the fickle aspects of human nature. False flattery and backstabbing missives are as familiar as ever. In this sense, Alceste’s misanthropic inclinations still feel germane.

“The Misanthrope,” though billed as a comedy, is firmly grounded in elements of tragedy, particularly in its presentation of Alceste’s lover Célimène. In the first scene of the play, Philinte wonders aloud just how it is that Alceste is so taken by her, given her inconstant ways and her total integration into the society that Alceste so abhors. As the play progresses, however, we begin to see how the lovers complement one another. Célimène is the misanthrope inverted, so to speak. She, too, seems to despise all those around her, but she uses her pointed criticisms as entertainment for those whose favor she seeks; her hatred is enticing rather than alienating. Together, Alceste and Célimène hate the world, simply interfacing with it in different ways.

Unsurprisingly, the distinctly uncomedic element of Molière’s darkest work is the eventual self-destruction of its two leads. Célimène’s distress at the end of Newell’s production is distinctly abject, and one can’t help but feel that this is how it’s supposed to be. One can imagine, as Newell noted, the confusion with which the play was originally met. If this is a comedy, where’s the marriage?

“The Misanthrope” is a black sheep within the canon of eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte, and thankfully so. The genre often reads as false and obscure as the affected era it represents. Newell’s production underlines the value of this so-called “comedy,” which lies in its refusal to settle at the level of mere entertainment. He strips down the farce and fancy, leaving hints at the brocaded epoch of bourgeois sensibility.

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through June 9. Wednesday-Sunday, times vary. $15-$65. (773)753-4472. courttheatre.org