Hilberry’s ‘Misanthrope’ goes for the gold

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Vanessa Sawson (second from left) as Celimene flirts with Jordan Whalen (left) as Acaste and Edmund Alyn Jones (third from left) as Clitandre as Clitandre, as Andrew Papa (right) as Alceste, the Misanthrope, fumes. “The Misanthrope” will run in rotating repertory through March 5 at Wayne State’s Hilberry Theatre. For more information, call the box office at (313) 577-2972, or go to www.hilberry.com.

By Sue Suchyta
The Hilberry Theatre’s production of “The Misanthrope” is golden – literally. From the glorious gold leaf set to the glittery costumes, the talented company presents a wonderful interpretation of Moliere’s classic comedy of manners.

Moliere – like Shakespeare – was one of the wonderfully gifted playwrights who wrote for kings and commoners, and whose timeless stories and observations survive hundreds of years later because their appeal to people is both entertaining, true to nature and perceptive.

“The Misanthrope” pokes fun at ridiculous manners and conventions, as well as false flattery. It treads a fine line between preserving people’s feelings and being false with praise.

It also catches a grouch in his own net when Alceste, the title’s misanthrope, who hates hypocrisy, falls in love with a woman who practices everything he preaches against: flattery, flirting and foolishness.

Scenic designer Michael Wilkki’s set is glorious – dripping with all the wonderfully decadent extravagance of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, the time period (1666 specifically) in which Moliere wrote and set the play. It is easily one of the most visually sumptuous sets the Hilberry has had in quite a while.

Insiders say the golden touches are actual gold leaf – from the elaborate swirls on the sides of the stage, the French version of bling art balancing above the door, to the frames encircling rich brocade on the walls. And while the opulence is over the top it is meant to mirror the excesses of the age – the indulgent and pompous mannerisms of the well-appointed and wealthy.

The white stage floor covering even shows off the richly appointed costumes to best effect. John Woodland, costume designer and Wayne State University professor of the Hilberry costume department, designed the wonderful period pieces. The costumes are amazing, from the ridiculous frippery on the fops to the rich brocades and detailed work on the men’s coats. The talented costumers who worked tremendously long hours to bring his creations to life deserve applause as well.

Each costume defines its character: The flirt is awash in rich rosy hues while the silly fops are dripping with lace and effeminate clothing that match their mannerisms. The males are more peacocks than the women, though color is not held back from their costumes, either, which – as with most farces – isn’t shy about displaying corseted cleavage.

Timothy Mooney’s translation of Moliere’s wit survives the switch from the original French with wit intact. It is also wonderfully easy to understand – all while often rhyming, a feat in itself.

The one-liners are wonderful, the wisdom both tongue-in-cheek and profound, and the dialogue quick and entertaining.

The cast has fun with the posturing and comedy of manners, as well as the verbal repartee. Director Jesse Merz and his wonderful production team have produced an entertaining evening of theater.

Alan Ball has a wonderful time with the part of Oronte, a poor poet with court connections whom others continually flatter to curry favor. Alceste, the grouchy truth-seeker, throws caution to the wind and tells Oronte how terrible his verse really is – which was a politically unhealthy thing to do. Ball’s build up to the delivery of the poem is a comic gem in of itself.

Andrew Papa is entertaining as the long suffering misanthrope, Alceste. Vanessa Sawson takes the role of the flirt, Celimene, beyond that of mindless tease and lets us believe that she goes to great lengths to avoid hurting other’s feelings.

Dave Toomey is wonderful as Alceste’s loyal friend Philinte – he reminds one of Dr. Gregory House’s sidekick Dr. James Wilson – ever the voice of caution, but still winning women in his own quiet way.

Samantha Rosentrator makes the most of Eliante, the flirt’s quietly loyal friend, who seems accustomed to being the runner up. Lorelei Sturm likewise makes the most of the role of Arsinoe, a judgmental sort who uses censure to separate those she envies.

Edmund Alyn Jones as Clitandre, and Jordan Whalen as Acaste are over-the-top as entertaining fops. Their exaggerative posturing and preening drew much appreciative laughter from the house.

“The Misanthrope” will run in rotating repertory through March 5 at the Hilberry Theatre. Tickets are available through the box office at (313) 577-2972, or online at www.wsushows.com.

The theater is at Cass and Hancock in Detroit on the WSU campus.

For more information go to www.hilberry.com.