The Display's the Thing 

Smart use of space makes Wilde, Molière adaptations all the better.

It's hard to find rehearsal and performance space, a problem that has increased as the economy has worsened. Only a few companies have the relative luxury of their own dedicated space -- a "luxury" that brings with it increased overhead and headaches. So most theater companies are nomadic entities governed by arcane algorithms of availability, rental fees, and inconvenient load-ins and load-outs. Sometimes, however, this can lead to happy surprises, as is the case with two new shows from Woman's Will and Central Works. In both instances, the companies have fit their plays exactly to the rented spaces in which they're performed, adding new layers to the audience's experience. Intriguingly, both works also explore the theme of keeping up appearances, a theme supported and enhanced by the elegance of Oakland's Pardee Home and Berkeley's City Club, respectively.

Enoch Pardee, a gold miner-turned-eye-doctor, built his house more than 130 years ago, filling it with all sorts of ornate treasures. It's now part of Oakland's Preservation Park Historic District, an easy walk from the 12th Street BART station. It's also the perfect setting for Oscar Wilde's "delicate bubble of fantasy," the farcical comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest. The play is performed in the Pardee drawing room, a space so intimate that often the actors are nearly sitting in the laps of the audience. It's a far cry from this summer's Pericles, a big show performed in the parks and prone to dogs running across the grassy stage at inopportune moments. Woman's Will works the space thoroughly -- character Algernon Moncrieff's butler Lane greets audience members as they come in, and invites them to partake of cucumber sandwiches and tea at the intermission. The effect is delightful, as though one is a guest and not an observer.

Obviously in such close quarters, the acting must be spot-on, and once again the actors of Woman's Will show off their skills with immaculate accents and characterizations -- no small feat considering that half the actors are women playing men's roles. Carla Pantoja and Erin Merritt are well-matched as friends Ernest Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, the former rather uptight and the latter charmingly dissolute. Phoebe Moyer is a magnificent Lady Bracknell, imperiously evaluating Ernest's worthiness for her daughter Gwendolen's hand ("I feel bound to tell you that you are not down on my list of eligible young men, although I have the same list as the dear Duchess of Bolton has. We work together, in fact," she explains, notepad in hand). Rosemary Maciel plays both men's butlers -- Lane and Merriman -- with enough subtle variety to indicate the differences between both of her characters and the leading men.

The sought-after ladies, Cecily and Gwendolen, are also well-played. Pale, ephemeral Chlöe Bronzan has exactly the "aesthetic" quality that Gilbert and Sullivan satirized in Patience, which features Wilde's doppelgänger Reginald Bunthorne; she may be a delicate country flower, but she's also very wily. Laura Hope's Gwendolen, meanwhile, manages to be both earthier and more refined. Hope, who spends much of her time onstage sitting down, brilliantly does a lot of acting with her eyes. A good example is when Ernest forgets to go to one knee as he proposes marriage, and she reminds him with a single eye-flick that has the audience howling. Finally there are the frustrated governess Miss Prism (Lauren Carley) and her would-be paramour, the rector Dr. Chasuble (Dianne Terp), who fill out their roles with beautiful singing and a moment of audience participation between the second and third acts.

This is Wilde's play as he must have envisioned it; sparkling, witty, and sharp. Thanks to the superb location, it is also genteel and inviting.


Meanwhile Central Works, waiting out the delayed completion of the GAIA building with resigned grace, chose the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club for its adaptation of Molière's comedy The Misanthrope. The space works even better for this show than it did for their Mata Hari. This time, instead of the offices of WWII spymasters, the room represents one in the palatial mansion of the widow Celia, the object of Alan's pained affections. The audience, arranged along three sides, becomes complicit in the conspiracy of manners that so troubles Alan, who works himself thoroughly into the room's nooks and crannies (cowering in a corner, trying to weasel out a side door). But the opulence of Celia's home masks serious problems, and the three characters will soon find the tastefully decorated walls closing in, in this thoroughly modern retelling of Molière's biting farce.

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, son of the King's upholsterer, renamed himself Molière to protect his father from the shame of having an actor in the family. His grave is in Paris' famous Père Lachaise cemetery (oddly enough, he died on the opening night of his play The Imaginary Invalid, in which he played the title role). But like sepulchral neighbor Jim Morrison, Jean-Baptiste is actually interred elsewhere. As Gertrude Stein might say, there's no Molière there. The same can't be said of writer/director Gary Graves' free adaptation of the 17th-century comic playwright's best-known work. The Graves version, stripped down to three characters from Molière's eleven, mercifully is much easier to follow, and the characters are more rounded. It's also a lot shorter and hence more comfortable than Mata Hari was. But Molière's dialogue and ideas are evident throughout, even if the ending is very different.

In Molière's original, Alceste is the misanthrope, Célimène his lover, and Philinte his best (and only) friend. Here they are Alan, Celia, and Phil. The retinue of "ridiculous marquises" Molière trotted out have been dispensed with. Now Alan, who still gets to say "speak from the heart, or say nothing at all," is a journalist who swigs Pepto-Bismol to deal with the acid of his hatred of all things false and insincere. Ironically, he's in love with the falsest thing going -- the lovely and cultured Celia, social butterfly extraordinaire. The setting is a party at her house, and Alan has something he desperately needs to tell her. If he can stop ranting, that is, and if she can resist the urge to go back to her other guests ("They'll probably all wander off and die of grief in your absence," Alan says). Also as in the original, Darren Bridgett's finely nuanced Alan is exactly the sort of guy you don't really want to take to a party -- not just because he won't enjoy himself, but because his disapproval will taint everything. But even as he rages, there's something appealing about him, a desperately held innocence, a romantic notion of a better world where people behave more respectfully. Eventually Alan discovers Celia's untruthfulness (about different things here than in the original, however) and has to decide whether he still wants to be with her or not. Molière's answer was no, and left Célimène looking pretty bad; Graves' answer is more humane.

Often Deborah Fink's Celia is consistent with her predecessor, the one female character Molière wrote who had, according to translator John Wood, more than one or two characteristic qualities. She's bright and vivacious and she thrives on the fast life ("Do you like cocaine?" she asks Alan, trying to cheer him up. "I don't, but there's some upstairs"). Like Célimène, she's not above gossip, and she's not anxious to choose between suitors. But where Célimène turns out to have no heart, Celia does, and the play takes a serious (and welcome) detour from the original as soon as that becomes clear. Fink manages sparkly and despondent with equal ease, considering that she spends much of the play whimpering. She's particularly convincing when she tells the story of her loveless first marriage to the much-older Armand.

The biggest change centers on Phil. Roberto Robinson, who was broad and wicked as Autolycus in the recent SF Shakes Winter's Tale, plays Phil here -- smooth, urbane, and very seductive. Robinson and his lovely voice are great in this part. The role has also been made much deeper than Molière's Philinte, who was really a harmless sidekick. Here Phil's libertine ways are getting him in trouble. While he's still the laid-back foil to Alan's spasticity ("You leave no room for the complexities of life," he observes gently), he's also predatory and unreliable.

Molière, in making a point about falsity and lampooning the nobility, created relatively shallow characters. Graves and Central Works may have reduced the farcical nature of the work, but in return their characters are real and the story more balanced. This Misanthrope may hate all humanity, but audiences will appreciate its humor, excellent acting, and evocative surroundings.

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