As wonderful as The Death of Meyerhold was, it put the Shotgun Players in a spot: what could they possibly do to top the success of their groundbreaking new work about a Russian director nobody here had ever heard of? Artistic director Patrick Dooley even makes fun of the company's plight in his director's notes for the new production of The Miser. He jokes that they'd considered doing an all-Meyerhold season, or Shakespeare, or revisiting the all-Greek antiwar season they staged a couple years back. Happily, the Players chose instead to perform one of Molière's most intelligent and witty comedies, the story of a man so stingy that, as one stage direction notes, "Harpagon sees that two candles are lit and blows one out."
Funny and acid, The Miser centers on Harpagon, who is roundly hated by everyone including his children for his parsimoniousness. Both his son, Cleante, and daughter, Elise, wish to marry, a dream Harpagon manages to stymie by withholding the necessary funds and -- in the case of his son -- trying to marry the girl in question himself. Meanwhile there's a strongbox of ten thousand gold crowns planted in the garden, a man of good family pretending to be a domestic so he can get close to Elise, and a great deal of pouting, stamping, scheming, and garment-tossing in the best tradition of French farce melded with Italian commedia dell'arte, one of Molière's passions.
While the company has gone in a very different direction after The Death of Meyerhold, the traces of its immersion in Meyerhold's "Biomechanics" are clear in the stage movement. Which is more appropriate than you might think: The Russian director was very influenced by such highly physical forms as commedia. And although this story is very different, the energy level is as consistently high and engaging. One might even say exhausting, in the best possible way. The characters are in constant motion -- ducking, weaving, seducing, and eventually dancing. Near the end of the last act the three women light out to the garden by jumping in unison over a prone Harpagon, which is much funnier than it sounds and only one small example of Andrea Weber's antic choreography. The moves look even better dressed up in Valera Coble's simplified Louis XVI costumes and steering through Lisa Clark and Alf Pollard's nonsensical set, where doors are often ignored in favor of windows or even hidden panels in the walls.
Dooley is working from the Chambers translation, which is more contemporary than the older, more traditional Frame version. It also seems that he has squeezed in a few notes to make the play reflect more directly on our time. Some are a little awkward (it's unclear why a Frenchman of that period would reference the Kabbalah), but some are just anachronistically charming (Frosine and Mariane munching on animal crackers as they watch the final big confrontation between Harpagon and his children).
While most of the cast is new or fairly new to Shotgun, it's better integrated than has occasionally been the case with larger Shotgun shows. And the old hands do a great job. Andy Alabran turns in one of his best performances yet as the foppish son with his Farrah Fawcett-styled hair and spinning lace hanky as a weapon. Meanwhile Clive Worsley was apparently born to play the vilest, most lascivious Harpagon imaginable, yet one with whom we still feel a gleeful, guilty camaraderie. His legs alone deserve a mention; it's as if they're a complete actor all by themselves as Harpagon capers and crouches and dances evil little jigs according to his mood. All of the newer players hold up well in the mayhem, and Fontana Butterfield's Frosine and Emily Jordan's Elise both put the lie to my old notion that Molière wrote one-dimensional female characters. He may well have, but these actors don't play them that way, from Frosine's easy carnality to the way Elise plays with her love, the dashing Valere (Joe Wyka).
Shotgun's The Miser is unalloyed amusement, a saucy, rollicking ride that makes farce fun again. And now that the company is trying the unusual experiment of offering all of the shows in its season free to the public (although it would certainly be polite to contribute to the hat when it comes around), there is absolutely no reason -- or excuse -- for missing this show.
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