17 July 2004: Molière, The Miser

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, in association with the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Minneapolis. Adapted by David Ball. Directed by Dominique Serrand, co-founder of the Jeune Lune

A brilliant, searching production of Molière’s corrosive comedy. Jeune Lune is famous for its fiercely independent “takes” on familiar classics and for its aggressively physical approach to their acting.

The miser, Harpagon, is played by Steven Epp, now co-artistic director of the company. It is a brilliant, intense, near monomaniacal performance. His costume is rags, shreds, a sort of grayish ivory color that matches the colors of the set — a ruined shell of what was once a stylish, upscale man­sion. His wig gives him hair in long, unkempt wisps to his shoulders. His face is maniacal, his eyes piercing, constantly riveted on whatever might pose a threat to his desperate attempt to hold onto his money, every last sou of it. An extremely physical performance; Epp inhabits the body of his character like a man possessed. Fighting a terrified battle against the twin inevitabilities of monetary loss and death. A truly memorable perform­ance.

Dominique Serrand stages David Ball’s rough-edged, idiomatic adapt­ation with great verve, wonderfully fast-paced timing, and close attention to the text. Actors alternate speaking at a swift idiomatic pace and slowing noticeably down to give extra meaning to keywords and phrases. Al­though I had a little trouble understanding at first (I have some hearing loss in the right ear and find it beneficial but not entirely satisfactory to use an aid), from my situation in the center of row I, just behind the main pass­age­way parallel to the stage, I soon adjusted, and everything was lucid. My companion said she was enthralled by the production. So was I.

Toward the end, Molière turns his analysis of greed in a happy direc­tion with revelations of long-lost father, brother, and sister. Then, in a coda devised, it seems, by Jeune Lune, the money and gold that Harpagon has buried in his backyard, only to have it dug up and stolen away, is returned to him — but the buried chest turns out to be a coffin, into which Harpa­gon crawls and into which all his money and gold are poured. The lid is secured on top and we see the joining of the twin thematic ideas of the production; the price of greed is, indeed, death.

I cannot do justice to the great range of physical comedy present in this production, even to the extent of a large rectangular stage floor up stage, unsteady through the first half of the play, that suddenly becomes unmoored, as the play approaches its crisis, and cants wildly and danger­ous­ly, first to one side, then the other, a wonderful emblem of the unmoor­ing of a family, and by extension of an entire society, by the antisocial actions of the miserly Harpagon. Harpagon’s bath is accomplished by hav­ing his servant don a hugely high pair of stilts and, walking across the lower stage to the bath stage left, reaching up with his staff to the plastic sheeting in the ceiling, which has collected rainwater through a gaping hole in the roof, and making the water it contains pour down upon Harp­agon sitting in the bath, naked except for a light chemise-like gar­ment. Astonishing, the extent this man will go to to save money. Much of the physical action and by-play is very reminiscent of commedia dell’arte tricks and sequences — just as Molière’s own script, and the long perform­ance tradition out of which he and his plays spring, emerge from that same source.

It is remarkable, then, how fully Jeune Lune realizes traditional performance values, even while they impose an entirely new, fresh, and telling interpretation. It’s enough to make one think of moving to Minnea­polis.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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