Let The Miser treat you to some big laughs
By Mike Giuliano
Molière's The Miser involves a really stingy guy, but the play itself is generous in its amorous plotting and slapstick-level humor. True to his satirical spirit, the Center Stage production is as extroverted as a vaudeville routine. It's so fast and silly that no dust could possibly settle on Molière's classic play.
Much of that lively spirit is due to a new translation and adaptation by James Magruder, a Center Stage dramaturg, which freely uses contemporary slang and even adds a few Maryland-themed references to this 17th-century French comedy. Though still presented as a period piece, this translation isn't afraid to speak in today's language.
Treating that script like an exciting night out on the town, the production directed by David Schweizer never lets up with its broadly conceived performances, bawdy jokes and pratfalls. This is mostly wonderful, even if the breathlessly eager-to-please approach shows occasional signs of strain.
The most extreme element, as you'd expect, is the miser himself. Harpagon is hoarding his gold in a chest, and he controls every other financial aspect of his life just as tightly. He nervously waddles through his house, barks orders at his children and servants and endlessly worries that somebody will try to steal his fortune.
Harpagon is generally portrayed as foolish, and the actor playing him here, Tom Mardirosian, certainly does that; however, what makes the performance a bit unusual is the amount of meanness he brings to Harpagon's snarled lines. Besides serving as a sharp reminder of what a miser is really like, Mardirosian's fine performance also helps prevent the production from slipping completely into silliness.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Harpagon is that his house resembles a warehouse full of possessions rather than what you'd call a home. This is beautifully reflected in Riccardo Hernández's set design, which incorporates stacks of packing crates presumably containing things that are owned and yet not used.
The pieces of worse-for-wear furniture placed on and around those crates are sometimes mounted so high that they too don't serve any practical purpose. And the set includes a symbolically large yet empty picture frame. It's also significant that price tags hang from many items, because Harpagon only thinks of value in terms of buying and selling.
This single parent's attitude extends to his children. Harpagon's daughter, Elise (Kate Guyton), is in love with handsome young Valère (Trent Dawson), who has disguised himself as a servant in order to be near her. Harpagon would never approve of a marriage between them, because he intends to arrange a marriage for her with a rich older aristocrat. And Harpagon's frilly-costumed son, Cléante (Charles Daniel Sandoval), is in love with the very pretty Mariane (Christian Corp), but Harpagon wants Mariane for his own bride.
A notable trait in Magruder's version of The Miser is that so much of the funny business is in the service of exploring how Elise and Cléante deal with their father. They want to marry for love and they're clever in making secret plans, but their father comes off as no more than greedy and immature.
It takes a lot of conniving before the marital arrangements are worked out in order to achieve a happy ending. Much of this scheming involves assorted suitors and servants who are brought to brightly costumed life by an energetic supporting cast.
Especially sharp is June Gable's tightly controlled performance as a seen-it-all matchmaker named Frosine. While other characters shout and carry on, Frosine gets big laughs with her deadpan observations. When the the plot twists threaten to spin out of control, Frosine makes the understated comment: "This is complicated."
Yes, it is complicated, and that's why you'll laugh at every scheme and revelation along the way.