The big ticket for my week was opening night of Martin Crimp’s adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope, at the Walterdale Playhouse, directed by Janine Waddell Hodder.
It was going to be my first encounter with Molière, so I picked up a copy of an English translation of the text in a used book store to prepare, and I used Wikipedia to learn that Molière was a 17th century writer of comedy, so working about a century later than Shakespeare and Cervantes. I looked at the cast of characters, started reading, and was dismayed to realise a few pages in that it was not only written in poetry lines like Shakespeare but it rhymed. Application to internet resources confirmed that it rhymed in the original too. I don’t know why this annoyed me, since I am fond of rhyme in a stage-musical context. But it did. Anyway, I read the first couple of acts before going to see the play.
This was my first time attending anything at the Walterdale other than Fringe shows. It has comfortable seats on risers on two sides of a biggish thrust stage, and good acoustics.
I thought the play was very funny, and it probably would have been funnier for someone with a more intimate knowledge of the source text. For one thing, the dialogue (some of it possibly a different Molière translation than I’d read, and some of it completely modern) was in the same kind of rhyme and metre used in the source text. The actors – especially Brennan MacGregor who played Alceste – did a great job phrasing the long speeches for sense rather than emphasising the metre. In the first scene, Alceste and his sidekick John (Zachary Parsons-Lozinski) were talking very quickly, which was part of the humour but it took a bit more effort to follow. Some of the rhymes were gratuitous enough to be inherently funny: boring and Andy Warhol drawing, for example, which works as a rhyme in the sort of Estuary English that character was using. The characters had a variety of English and American accents consistent with their origins (with a little bit of French and a minor character something else – maybe Northern Irish?), and I thought the accents were well done, enhancing the story rather than detracting from it.
In the Molière story, the main character Alceste (the eponymous misanthrope) insists he prefers blunt direct speech, but he is in love with a woman named Célimène, who says cutting things to everyone but only behind their backs. One early scene illustrating Alceste’s character has him and his sidekick Philinte listening to a bad poem someone else has written about Célimène, and then Alceste telling the writer how crap it is.
In the version I saw, Alceste is a modern-day playwright in London, and the catty woman he’s in love with is Jennifer (Afton Rentz), an American movie star. The equivalent critique scene involves a drama critic (Bill Roberts) who begs Alceste to listen to a play he has written – well, more like a draft, a scene, notes for a scene. It’s awful, of course. Bill Roberts’ delivery is painfully good, and Alceste and John’s different ways of responding are very funny. Jennifer’s naïve repetition of good lines at her friends’ expense goes bad in the way a more media-savvy person would expect, and wacky hijinks ensue.
One of the funniest things about this play was the way that every now and then there would be some allusion to Molière or the 17th century, culminating in everyone except Alceste showing up at the end in period costume for a party, while delivering the lines that worked equally well in the movie start’s hotel suite and in the French court.
It was also thought-provoking for me because I’m definitely not a person like Alceste who enjoys delivering blunt critique directly, and I don’t like receiving it either. I’m more like John, preferring a world where people are kind to each other first. This probably makes me not a very interesting reviewer, especially since I admire people who take creative risks in public so much that I just want to be a fangirl. Is it possible to be kind in person without being cutting in private? Sometimes sharing the good lines is hard to resist, so does that make me like Jennifer? Food for thought.
As you can see from my example, you don’t need to know very much about the original play to enjoy the adaptation and pick up on some of the inside jokes. The Misanthrope is playing at the Walterdale Playhouse until December 15th, tickets at Tix on the Square. Also, the program says it’s 3 hours long – that’s a typo; it’s about 2 hours with intermission.
My other new theatregoing experience this week was that I went to Die-Nasty for the first time. Die-Nasty is a very-long-form improv show at the Varscona Theatre: a season-long soap-opera with an installment every Monday night. This year it’s a Tennessee-Williams’-flavoured story of the lives of interconnected families in the Deep South, which leads itself easily to parody. Most of the audience seemed to be regulars, familiar with the characters and the routine of the show, and many of them had season passes with reserved seats. There was a brief summary of story-to-date in the program, and each character got a brief monologue to introduce himself or herself before the action got going. And there were lots of odd characters, similar to stock characters of that setting but with enough specifics to be original. There was one line with a possible interpretation in poor enough taste to disturb me (calibration – this rarely happens for me at improv performances), but in general it was just silly. I couldn’t work out how much of it was planned ahead of time – the narrator would introduce each scene or vignette like “meanwhile, back at the Beaumont plantation, the lawyer has some bad news”, and then the actors would do that scene.
A bonus for Edmonton theatregoers is the number of familiar faces on the stage, including Peter Brown of the CBC, Donovan Workun, Leona Brausen, Mark Meer, Matt Alden, and others. Die-Nasty tickets are also available at Tix on the Square, with performances every Monday (except Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve).