It had been quite a while since I’d seen Molière in the Park perform Molière in the park. For me, the drought was broken with Sunday afternoon’s performance of The Misanthrope. In the hands of this dedicated troupe, Richard Wilbur’s mid-20th-century translation holds up as well as Molière’s comedy of manners itself. And this big, colorful outdoor production is exactly the sort the 17th-century playwright’s work needs today.
The characters are timeless. Gabriel Ebert (a Tony Award winner for Matilda) and Maechi Aharanwa turn in performances of broad comedic intensity as Alceste and Célimène respectively. They lead a uniformly strong cast in this tale of a cantankerous man fed up with the aristocracy’s hypocrisy and corruption but entangled in his love for a glamorous social butterfly.
Directed with sizzle by Lucie Tiberghien, the cast brilliantly integrates Wilbur’s iambic-pentameter rhymes into a sitcom-broad acting style that yet feels natural – or anyway “natural.” Performing in the round, with a set that consists pretty much of just a bed, they lubricate their lines with humor and over-the-top histrionics that kept me enthralled. The serious subject matter doesn’t get lost, but it’s conveyed with a heaping spoonful of sugar.
As Alceste’s friend Philinte (the excellent Margaret Ivey) sensibly objects, society couldn’t function if everyone were totally honest all the time. The vast bulk of humanity would spurn a real-life Alceste. Yet Alceste isn’t wrong that corruption and dishonesty engender more of the same in an infinite loop.
Near the end, Oronte (played by Chris Henry Coffey with a nice balance of sincerity and buffoonery), Alceste’s rival and the victim of his scorn, demands Célimène choose between suitors. She demurs, replying that hurtful words shouldn’t be declared publicly. The divide between society and a misanthrope who insists on brutal honesty persists.
Ebert dominates his scenes with unrelenting grievance, Aharanwa hers with I’m-all-that flounce. Danaya Esperanza brings touching sensitivity to the lovelorn Éliante, and Kate Siahaan-Rigg dresses the jealous Arsinoé in buttoned-up swagger and high dudgeon.
The Misanthrope runs through May 25 at the LeFrak Center at Lakeside, Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Tickets are free but must be reserved at the website.