Moliere's The Misanthrope in 21st Century Mode

misanthrope.jpgWithout a doubt, Ivo van Hove is a talented, edgy director. His take on Moliere’s The Misanthrope, playing at New York Theatre Workshop, is hyper-modern, energetic, larger than life, and urbanely witty. The stark set suggests a contemporary loft, where artistic, showy, high performing people gather to tear each other apart. This 17th century French comedy, translated by British poet Tony Harrison, seems very of the moment in Hove’s production. The articulate crowd of characters all carry ever-active cell phones and Blackberries, wear stylish dark suits, and snap in and out of their social interactions with the attention span of hyperactive four year olds. Each is self-centered to the max.

At the center of the play is Alceste, the misanthrope himself, who finds his sophisticated comrades unbearable in their falseness, and yet who loves possessively the flirtatious Celimene, creating a high-tension erotic tug of war. Alceste wants Celimene to drop her active social circle for him alone, chastising her about her crowd of male admirers, “The hopes you dangle out before them all / just help to keep them at your beck and call.”

What Hove brings to the tale is a 21st century sensibility, using a large video screen to both mirror the actors (in real stage time) and to contrast with their scenes (with shots from the rehearsal process). So we watch the action unfolding on several levels at once, including shots from offstage, behind the set, where the actors go when not in a scene. It is the 24/7 world of reality television. In this milieu, the media is always awake, as are we in the audience since this one hour and fifty minute production has no intermission.

Bill Camp as Alceste is just marvelous, capturing the nervous, bitter, articulate rage of the man, as well as his hopeless erotic obsession. Alceste annoys everyone with his non-stop critiques of their behavior and of the culture at large, and yet he is enslaved by his passion for the lovely Celimene, also intensely rendered by Jeanine Serralles. Early in the play they fly at each other in a spontaneous choreography of lust, almost ripping their clothes off on the uncluttered set.

The simplicity of the set (production design by Jan Versweyveld) helps make the wild physicality possible. All these high-energy characters can run, skip, and jump, and even drag bodies across the floor in the large open space. Several times there are knock-down fights between different antagonists, taking their emotional rage to the level of schoolyard scuffle in way that is, given their social status, not so much realism as meta-theatre. Hove’s view of our contemporary society is one in which highly sophisticated people are often just on the edge of utter breakdown, whether the situation moves towards wrestling, sexual activity, or food fights.

Alceste’s behavior is so provocative that several times it devolves into to physical battles: with his friend and companion, Philinte; with his rival and sycophant, Oronte; and even with his beloved but infuriating Celimene. Besides these tussles, he engages in a massive food fight with himself, pouring on the catsup, the whipped cream, the watermelon, the chocolate syrup, until he is painted from head to toe in food, remaining so besmeared throughout the rest of the play. The image is of a kind of social scapegoat, who wears the curdled mess of society on his body and clothes. The sheer outrageousness of the food smearing and later garbage strewing ratchets up the theatrical tension and risk of this production. Things are clearly out of control. People are running berserk.

So what is Hove telling us? That life is more intense than we realize? That we pay a price for our technical freedom and our “liquid society” (a phrase he uses in interviews), where bonds are created and broken every minute on the web, on the mobile phone, on the ubiquitous plasma screen television? Of course Moliere, more than 300 years ago, was mocking the refined court society of France, with its pretensions and elaborate modes of refined but hypocritical behavior. So too Hove mocks our times, but with a bite that suggests a coming apocalypse. He holds a mirror up to us.

But powerful as Hove’s theatre is, and it is powerful and exciting, I can’t help but wonder if the issues we truly need to deal with are hidden way behind the scenes. So a foolishly corrupt society, in which the media is ever present, is more a symptom of a larger illness than the illness itself. It is not that Hove has failed in any way, it is just that wonderful as this new rendering of Moliere is, it is in many ways a brilliantly executed distraction, suggesting that obsessive love and gossip and fragile, frenetic social interactions lie at the heart of our contemporary world, when perhaps they are really the icing on the cake of the decline and fall of western culture. And we are dancing to this loud and pulsing music as the world around us burns. - Victoria Sullivan

victoria.jpgMs. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.