If the French playwright Molière were alive today, he'd probably be writing snarky commentary about two-faced politicians or skewering the Kardashians (and our obsession with them) through satirical pieces for The Onion. This was a man who found 17th-century political and social hypocrisy contemptible, and felt the best way to illuminate society's flaws was through comedy and satire.
So it's unfortunate that in North Carolina Central University's production of Molière's The Misanthrope, directed by Kamora Avent, the satirical power of his work is completely lost. Alceste, the eponymous misanthrope, denounces society's insincerities with unflinching candor; he's like that awkward grandfather who ruins the dinner party by being too damn honest. In contrast, there's Celimene, a lovely, flirtatious young woman who strings her multiple suitors along by flattering each one in turn, then enumerating the flaws of each the second he is out of sight. Alceste is deeply in love with Celimene, but he doesn't let his feelings override his honesty-only policy. His method of courtship is following Celimene around while criticizing her incessantly.
It's all ripe material for humor, a comedy of manners that underlies the hypocrisy of French high society, that delicate balancing act of flattery and gossip. But in this production, any sort of tension between decorum and distaste is lost. Too often, actors stand in place and talk at each other, relying on stiff, repeated gestures and inconsistent accents to build characterization while failing to listen and react to others onstage. Indeed, actors seem unclear of their characters' intentions or objectives, which gives the play the feeling of a series of scenes strung together without any sort of buildup of conflict or narrative arc. Moments of farcical humor reveal the actors' comic potential, but these moments seem to come out of nowhere, sudden outbursts of hamminess amid a lot of repetitive talk.
As the actors pointed out in a post-show talkback, The Misanthrope is still relevant to today's society where "frenemies" are commonplace. Here's hoping that in future performances, improved timing, more varied blocking and clarified characterizations better reveal the timeliness of the play's conflict and narrative, and with it, the comic power of Molière's work.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Gimme shelter."