The Miser: Cheap Thrills From Center Stage
By Peter Marks
BALTIMORE—The saucy serving of The Miser at Center Stage is for those who like their French fare spicy and au courant. The veteran translator James Magruder provides a burlesque kick to Molière's 336-year-old farce, and the result is a delectable evening of shameless off-color gags and timeless double entendres.
David Schweizer's vivacious production is a rebuke to people who insist Molière is as rousing as a date with an anesthesiologist. Magruder's revisions give the piece, if not a breakneck pace, then a bracing one. Who would have thought a 17th-century dramatist could have supplied a comic framework fit for the stylings of Benny Hill? As illustrated in a discussion about a woman between Harpagon, the play's famed skinflint, and his playboy son, Cléante:
"How often did you see her?" Harpagon asks.
"As often as I could fit it in," Cléante replies.
Yes, this Miser is about cheapness in all its forms.
Riccardo Hernández's set accentuates the fiduciary obsession of the play, the tale of a tightwad so tight that his feelings for his cash box border on the pornographic. Luxury items adorning the mustard-colored stage are affixed with price tags, as if we were at a Louis XIV sample sale. Broken pieces of a gilded picture frame are suspended at odd angles—another indication that we're looking at the play from an unorthodox vantage point.
The Miser is a prose play—easier on the contemporary ear than Molière's rhymed-couplet masterworks, such as The Misanthrope—and Magruder's modern syntax furthers the cause of accessibility. It helps, too, that in this play about people who know exactly what they want, every one of Schweizer's actors knows exactly whom he or she is playing. (Only Harpagon, the miser, traffics in self-delusion, and in the mien of Tom Mardirosian, he's a playfully clueless jerk.) The chief source of this production's amusement is the ebullient ensemble work; the spirit is infectious, even if it occasionally goes over the top. The template for this rosy, ribald romp is Tony Richardson's 1963 cinematic tour de force, Tom Jones, a giddy, lascivious rendering of the picaresque Henry Fielding novel. As in the movie, some of the twee bits grow a little too winsome—in this Miser, it's the fey fripperies of Cléante (Charles Daniel Sandoval), decked out like a glitter-rock prom queen, that become shticky—but for the most part, the cast keeps the bubbles afloat.
No one embodies the innocently mischievous air more juicily than June Gable, who plays Frosine, the sly-fox matchmaker, as if the characters were all engaged in an inconsequential parlor game. Petite and blunt-spoken, she's like a cross between Carla, the barmaid on Cheers, and Judge Judy on a day when the judge is not out for blood.
She takes charge in every scene she's in and steals one of them with a demonstration of gymnastic limberness. She's a first-rate foil for Mardirosian's Harpagon, too, and their blissful exchange in Act 1, when Frosine tries desperately to undercut his penny-pinching, offers the evening's best battle of wits.
Among the other performers, Jonathan Hammond cuts a witty figure as Harpagon's nasty-funny chef and coachman, Master Jacques, and Christine Corp makes a fetchingly shrewd Mariane, object of the affections of both Cleante and his father. As he showed earlier this season in Center Stage's Misalliance, Trent Dawson can bring a light touch to a stiff-necked character, in this case to Valère, the lowly servant with the uppity pedigree.
The smart theatrical touches range from David Zinn's eye-popping wardrobe choices, which look like French baroque by way of a Christina Aguilera video, to the clever deployment of a violinist, José Miguel Cueto, on hand to add an exclamation point after virtually every punch line.
Not every gambit works; at times, Magruder's language clashes with the antiquated conventions of the play, such as arranged marriages.
Still, watching this Miser, you're reminded how much the playwrights of every age simply want to make 'em laugh.