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Review of The Miser

The City of Greater Rochester's Alternative Newspaper

 

'Miser' has laughs to share
by Herbert M. Simpson

Mark Cuddy, Geva Theatre's artistic director, has crafted a fast-moving slapstick romp from Moliere's classic comedy The Miser. It's about as much fun as you're likely to find in a local theater this season. A mélange of styles, accents, ideas, and design concepts, it is consistent only in its unremitting efforts to be funny. The bottom line is that virtually none of those seemingly desultory efforts fall flat. This Miser is certainly not stingy with its laughs.

Moliere's great play is traditionally something of an oddity. Harpagon, the title role is so obsessed with personal gains that he is often played as wholly unlikable, a fool to be punished. Yet notable actors have made Harpagon truly tragic in the great scene when he loses his fortune. This version has no such emphases. Any serious thematic center for the play is lost in its sheer silliness.

Not to worry, though. Much of that silliness is inspired comic invention. The Moliere classic normally triumphs through its polished wit, which David Chambers' adaptation offers little of. Its theatrical success depends upon a strong performer in the dominant central role. In that category, Geva has lucked out incredibly. New to our theater, David Cromwell invests this miser with immense comic riches.

An actor whose face, all downward curves, cries out for an Al Hirschfeld cartoon, Cromwell effortlessly commands a masterful variety of techniques to bring us a miser so awful and yet so deliciously funny that I love him. I'd like to sit through a second performance just to watch Cromwell at work again. I trust that the skilled ensemble cast will forgive my impression that their imaginative performances reflect the creative influence of working so closely with him. There are no weak links, but the only one I'd single out is Grace Hsu, only because I've never seen the ingénue Marianne played as a mugging Minnie Mouse.

The production is downright nutty-not a judgmental comment. A description of this kind of theatrical whimsy will sound the same whether the choices are hopelessly wrongheaded and ineffective or absolute treats. The controlling intelligence is all, and this time Cuddy is right on the mark.

The décor, for instance, is stark and unappealing-a mansion so run down that Dickens' Miss Havisham would call an interior decorator. And the center of the floor is a giant hole covered by boards. But G.W. Mercier's terrific set has a golden payoff joke that's too much of a treasure to spoil for you in advance. Anyway, characters amusingly use that gaping hole to basically fall over those boards. Cuddy ought to give his actors hazardous duty pay.

I find the hype about B. Modern's magnificently detailed period costumes to be part of the joke. They're nothing special, and the one that is much remarked upon for its super-expensive elegance merely looks to be from a slightly earlier period. Maybe I'm spoiled by costuming at the Shaw and Stratford Festivals. Gregg Coffin, who works in good places like those, underscores the slapdash entertainment's variety with a music design that begins with Edith Piaf and moves through classic French folksong to Cole Porter and onward.

But it doesn't matter, because the crazy mix of moving armor, descending figures, farcical chases, and - above all- pinpoint timing, keeps the laughter constant. So Harpagon angrily tells the Chief of Police to "throw the book at him!", and the Chief throws his notebook at the man. It gets a laugh, doesn't it? I don't know how much of it Moliere would recognize or like. But this is live theater, not a college course, and it is very brightly alive.

 

Thanks to Mary Jane for providing this review.

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