Arts Listings

At the Theater: ‘The Miser’ Comes to the Rep

By Ken Bullock
Friday May 19, 2006

“I’ll spare no-one ... I’ll break with the whole human race.” In the darkness before curtain at the Berkeley Rep, the audience hears these ominous words. The lights go up on the set of a ruined drawing room, the salon of some great old house “before the Revolution” in France, walls stained with neglect and the ceiling drooping down. 

It’s Moliere, but not The Misanthrope. The strange comedy we see begin through a plastic scrim as two young persons get up from the floor and quibble over their mutual devotion and chances for marriage, is The Miser, as adapted by David Ball and staged by Theatre de la Jeune Lune, guest touring company at The Berkeley Rep, under the direction of its cofounder, Dominique Serrand.  

The two figures in the sidelit morning tableau are Elise, daughter of the title character (Sarah Agnew), and her secret beau, Cleante (Stephen Cartmell), sycophantic steward of the household and a castaway dignitary of Naples posing as a servant. Soon the whole cast suddenly leaps up from the corners where they’ve huddled unnoticed, like a pile of rags, reef the plastic scrim—and enter “the world’s least human human,” Harpagon (Steven Epp), The Miser. 

As portrayed by Epp, Harpagon is a manic salamander of a creature, scurrying back and forth, tongue darting or lolling. Serrand has noted that it was only in the post-war French theater that Harpagon was shown as vigorous, standing upright, an innovation of Jean Vilar of the Theatre Nationale Populaire. There’s a moment of great physical humor in the close byplay between Harpagon and young La Fleche (Nathan Keepers), like mirror images of each other as they skitter nervously around the stage as The Miser shouts, “Like a tree waiting for a dog ... Your bulging eyes take in everything I own.”  

Harpagon also rails at and strip-searches his own servants. Crazy invectives and great lines from Moliere’s original stand out in a blur of dialogue and speeches delivered with an odd, rickety syncopation, sometimes broken with inarticulate mouthings and odd gestures sawing the air. 

The story jolts along amid much side business, which takes center stage. Both Harpagon’s children are desperate to marry. His gambler son Cleante (Stephen Cartmell), accouttered like a post-punk rooster, wants ingenue Mariane (Maggie Chestovich, with sharp gestures and poses), only to have his unwitting father as rival. Frosine (Barbara Kingsley), an older woman, serves as go-between. 

In truth, the plot seems more a ploy for the cast to work back, with various schtick, through Moliere to the improvisations of his predecessors and inspiration, the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte troupes—a logical mission for a touring company founded by alumnai of the Ecole Jacques LeCoq. 

But the sometimes mismatched and broken off routines aren’t so much lazzi as a showcase of The Three Stooges after a course of shock treatment. And the attitudinizing is less stylized, less grotesque than a warmed-over bizarrie-unto-itself. There’s often a kind of lassitude to the timing, a drag to the quirky pace of this long show, especially before intermission. 

Some of this is a result of the curious halting vocal delivery, a version of the jerky claptrap that occurs either when stylized speech is translated too literally into highly-accented English, usually sounding like mumbling or babytalk, or to archly signal with its pauses that the dialogue’s an arty put-on (early John waters and later David Lynch films come to mind). 

The articulation of more than the speech is slipshod, too, inconsistant even in regard to individual players’ mannerisms, much less the integration of gestural business in ensemble playing. 

Serrand has mentioned “the comedy of tragedy” and a “language based on lies” in “a desperate world where because you’re dealing with a tyrant, everything has to be coded.” 

But there’s less tragedy than anxiety, even stress, expressed onstage, and the social comment seems more on the level at times of an art school production, convinced that tragedy and comedy are euphemisms for self-display. The ultrachromatic, even atonal overtones of the show are reflected in the uncomplementary colors of the otherwise wellmade costumes, a kind of blotchy spectrum, for a postmodern parody of a parody, or burlesque of a burlesque. 

Not all is over or underblown. There’s real talent for physical comedy in the players, and some of them execute very well within the constraints of all the conceptualism--especially David Rainey as Master Jacques, a recent addition to the cast, who turns a consistant, wonderfully nuanced performance. There are explosions of slapstick, and local performers GreyWolf (as Anselme) and an ensemble of six (including Clive Worsley) cringe, cavort and sound out (there’s not much strutting) on Riccardo Hernandez’s funhouse set. 

It’s a little like that old story of George Kaufman backstage at a Marx Bros. show he wrote: Moliere can be imagined in the wings, saying, “I thought for a minute I heard one of my own lines ...” Too bad Jeune Lune missfires at the ultraburlesque shredding of conventions and expectations the Marxes reveled in. 



Presented by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through June 25 at the Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St. 647.2900.  



Photograph by Kevin Berne 

Stephen Cartmell, Steven Epp and Sarah Agnew in The Miser.