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Theater Review (NYC): The Misanthrope

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A friend of mine told me that a friend of hers told her that when he goes into a room with other men, it’s always a fight. Not a physical fight, just a combat to see who is king of the hill at that meeting. And if her friend doesn’t think he can win, he leaves.

This has been on my mind since seeing The Misanthrope, because this is the second production I have seen directed by Ivo van Hove where I wondered who was pissed off at whom and why we’re watching the fight.

An alternate title to this production could be Welcome to The Theatre And Let Me Rub Your Face In Garbage. Literally.

Symbolically too, of course – life is stupid and filled with garbage, on the street and in people’s heads and hearts. It’s one big food fight. Alceste, the misanthrope, knows this. It’s why he is a misanthrope. And this is how the story starts – our misanthrope du jour has had enough. We’re not sure why today is the day he slips over the edge, but it is. Enough with false talk and flattery. Enough with lies and deception. Enough with gossip. Feh on you all.

Feh on everyone except for Alceste’s girlfriend, Célimène, who he can’t stop loving, no matter how superficial or two-faced she is. He can, however, interrupt her afternoon food fest by lying down on the table, on top of the food itself, and covering himself with most of the spread: chocolate sauce, ketchup, mustard, ramen noodles, yogurt, strawberries, pudding, and – oh yeah – chicken livers. A lot of red and brown and wiggly food stuffs. And a hotdog that he shoves in his pants and covers with whipped cream. Never mind the visuals – think about the smell.

This play is a very long two hours, and rather near the end, as if not satisfied with the smell factor, our leading man retrieves three bags of garbage from the street and hurls the contents all over the stage, then rolls in it. Life is truly garbage; his relationship has turned to garbage, and no doubt so will he.

These excellent, excellent actors deserve battle pay, as my chum said. They don’t appear happy to be in this production, which is easy to understand. They have no chance to tell a story, or to revel in the poetry of this fine translation, because all their time is taken up meting out stinky spoonfuls of van Hove’s vision. When we leave the theatre, we are not thinking about the misanthrope, his arguments, his fate, or how the play reflects our world as it is today. We are thinking only of the set that must be cleaned and the exhausted actors who must be hosed down. And ultimately we think of the pissing contest van Hove was having with Molière, the other man in the room, who, as it turns out, is still dead and was not able to attend the battle. I guess this means van Hove wins by default, which might not be so bad if this were supposed to be a contest.

The Misanthrope

By Molière, translated by Tony Harrison; directed by Ivo van Hove; production design by Jan Versweyveld; costumes by Emilio Sosa; sound by Raul Vincent Enriquez; video by Tal Yarden; production stage manager, Larry K. Ash. Presented by the New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; Lynn Moffat, managing director. At the New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street, East Village; (212) 239-6200. Through Nov. 11. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

WITH: Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Eliante), Jason C. Brown (Clitandre), Bill Camp (Alceste), Amelia Campbell (Arsinoé), Joan MacIntosh (Acaste), Alfredo Narciso (Oronte), Thomas Jay Ryan (Philinte) and Jeanine Serralles (Célimène).

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