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Brilliant 'Miser' at Playhouse

Greed and love face off in disturbing production of the classic

Published November 2005

By Charlene Baldridge


The Miser
Written by Moliere
Directed by Dominique Serrand

The La Jolla Playhouse
Mandell Weiss Theatre
UCSD campus
Through November 13, 2005

Still playing October catch-up, the arts scribe found a seat at the La Jolla Playhouse November 2 to see Theatre de la June Lune's brilliant and rare production of Moliere's "The Miser." The concept – by actor Steven Epp and director Dominique Serrand – reminds one of Butoh: Everything is so covered with plaster dust. What once might have been an elegantly decorated ballroom with burnished floors, mirrors and gold trim is now shades of white with gray streaks of mold running up the walls. A gaping hole in the ceiling is covered with plastic sheeting that sags under the weight of pooled rainwater. In the frantic Act II denouement, the floor reflects a world askew with avarice.

In most Moliere productions one sees hints of social graces and at least some laces. Not in this one. The entire household – servants and grown children alike – is so browbeaten they look like survivors of a nuclear war, earthquake or flood. In this case, however, the abuser is not nature but a force named Harpagon, played with physical and vocal prowess and fluid acuity by Epp.

Natalie Moore and Steven EppNatalie Moore and Steven Epp
Photo by Michal Daniel
Except for those who come from without Harpagon's household, shades of tattered white and ecru, including Harpagon's marriageable daughter Elise (quirky, adorable Sarah Agnew), who loves the servant Valere (Jim Lichtscheidl) – a nobleman in disguise – and Harpagon's rebellious son, Cleante (the mesmerizing, physically adept Steven Cartmell), who has fallen in love with a newly arrived foreigner named Marianne (perky Natalie Moore) – who in David Ball's adaptation speaks in delightful fractured sentences. Harpagon has other plans for his offspring. Elise will wed Anselme (Robert Sankowsky), a wealthy neighbor in his 50s who has agreed to take Elise without dowry. Further, Harpagon insists that Cleante marry a wealthy widow of more than certain age. Harpagon employs Frosine (Barbara Kingsley), the French equivalent of a yenta, to effect this and also help him obtain the object of his desire, his own son's beloved Mariane.

The cause of true love is supported by Harpagon's wily servant La Fleche, a mirror image of the master but with soul, nimbly played in jaw-dropping commedia dell'arte style by Nathan Keepers. Master Jacques (Remo Airaldi), the household's interchangeable cook and coachman, who connives to rid the household of the upstart Valere, provides much amusement.

This is a haunting production of a classic. As one of my colleagues aptly stated, Theatre de la June Lune's "Miser" is in the heady yet visceral realm of Stephen Wadsworth's equally disturbing "Don Juan," which played at the Old Globe last season. It is simply not to be missed.

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