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Messing with MoliŤre

You'll either rave about or despise the Alley's pop adaptation of The Miser

Mon Dieu, what the hell is going on downtown? David Ball's sexed-up pop adaptation of Molière's classic farce The Miser, co-produced by the Alley and the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, is running, and you'll either rave about it or despise it. You'll leave the theater exhausted or exhilarated, but neither will be entirely satisfactory, because Molière has had the stuffing kicked out of him. All for the sake of art.

Granted, the satirical Frenchman is in a league of his own and can take care of himself, but like Shakespeare, he's had his share of crass productions, and one more in the minus column is just tiresome. I wish these artists would leave Molière alone.

The Theatre de la Jeune Lune (Theater of the New Moon) has two homes, Paris and Minneapolis, but its heart belongs to France. The company's founders graduated from the famed international Ecole Jacques Lecoq School of Physical Theatre Training. Physicality is a fundamental principle of these Lune-atics, with the mechanics of body movement and sound on equal footing with dialogue. Street theater, commedia dell'arte, circus and mime fiddle around in an unhealthy mix; here, what we end up with is bare-bones Molière, eye-candy scenic design and frenetic characters who appear to have scurried in from a 40-year-old performance of Marat/Sade. It has a definite look, that's for sure, and the actors are brimming with technique and shtick, but their peculiar characterizations and tics don't necessarily illuminate. If each person is as whacked out as the next, without much differentiation, what's the point? The ensemble works together seamlessly and everything matches (the entire mise-en-scène is flawlessly realized), but nothing really goes together.

A cartoon: Steven Epp's Harpagon.
John Everett
A cartoon: Steven Epp's Harpagon.

Details

Through April 30. $36-$55.
The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

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The Miseris still there, underneath all the artsy furbelows. That cantankerous scrooge Harpagon is so in love with his money, he'll ruin his children's happiness in marriage so he won't have to spend any of it. He's a hideous old fool, bone-white with wisps of stray hair sprouting from his head. Childish and senile in the same breath, Steven Epp's portrayal is most assuredly in-your-face. Epp does a Groucho walk better than anyone, but there's also a lot of Harpo in his Harpagon, as he fastens his dusty housecoat with a piece of gaffer's tape and licks his avaricious lips like a parched serpent. He literally bounces off the walls of the dilapidated set, and his voice is a sequence of throaty purrs, growls and rumblings. This miser is not a believable character by any stretch -- he's a cartoon -- but he's so off-the-wall, you can't forget him.

All the actors play their parts this way. As Harpagon's daughter Elise, an air-headed ditz, Sarah Agnew caterwauls in a wimpy whine. (But she does take the most perfect pratfall in Act II, sprawling in slo-mo tumble to the other side of the stage. The physical comedy throughout is highly polished.) Maggie Chestovich plays Mariane, Harpagon's intended quarry who's also his son's secret fiancée; she applies mismatched tennis shoes and an annoying vocal hash to the character. Adapter Ball gives her a choppy syntax and weird Yoda-like phrasing that must mean something, but it's gotten lost in the translation. As Cleante, the son who bristles under his father's impecunious reign, Stephen Cartmell is hopped up with love, sporting a blue 17th-century wig with Mohawk topknot. He, at least, comes off as a desperate young man in the throes of passion.

Of all the crazies inhabiting this house, two stand out. Alley member David Rainey is Master Jacques, Harpagon's cook and coachman (Harpagon is so cheap, everyone works a double shift). Jacques is asked to prepare a feast without food and then to tell a smoldering Harpagon just what his neighbors think of him. By the time Rainey sputters out his delicious account with "you have the generosity of a dying chicken's puckered asshole," you'll be grateful for the laugh. It's the brightest spot in the show. Barbara Kingsley, as Frosine the matchmaker, is the other bright spot. Carrying a bucket as a purse and wearing a neon combo of lime and fuchsia, she's the perfectly gauche yenta and the best Phyllis Diller clone out there. She lies, wheedles and cajoles to make Harpagon her client, no matter how decrepit he may be. Her double takes are priceless, and the only words she can muster at the sight of this wheezing, shuffling sexagenarian is "Christ on a bike!" and "Jesus on a whale!" Needless to say, neither this dialogue nor the scatological chicken-butt reference was penned by Molière.

The world of opera has a name for this: Euro Trash, where some work of Verdi or Wagner is plunked willy-nilly inside a concrete factory or set on the moon, and everyone wears black leather trench coats. Having lurked around the fringes of the theater world, the trend has hit home with The Miser under director Dominique Serrand. Overindulgent and smug, it's not quite rhinestone, but it ain't diamond either.

 
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