We are a bad gender, I agree, but can't you see me as the exception?" So says Valère, a resourceful servant, to his lover, Elise (the daughter of his master), in response to her disparaging remarks about the male of the species in Molière's The Miser. This exchange would appear to be the set-up for some sort of battle of the sexes, but anyone who has ever read Molière will know that the great French playwright and social critic never fought merely one battle at a time. With a body of theatrical work that easily stands as one of the greatest in history, Molière (who would have turned 388 on Jan. 15; happy birthday, Mo!) was famous for his satirical jabs at everyone and everything, and The Miser is a fine example.
The just-opened production by the Ross Valley Players (enjoying its 80th anniversary this year) nicely exacerbates the social mayhem by unlocking the story from its 17th-century roots, using a modern translation by David Chambers that dispenses with the traditional rhyming couplets. Directed with a strong command of physical comedy by Bruce Vieira, the show serves as a perfect entry point for anyone who's not yet experienced the shooting-gallery funhouse that is a Molière farce.
Elise (whose earthy enthusiasm is well played by Kelly Rinehart) wants to marry the dashing Valère (Chad Yarish), but knows that her tyrannical father Harpagon, the miser of the play's title, will see no financial benefit in the marriage. When she enlists the support of her foppish brother, Cléante (brilliantly played by the physically flippy-floppy Andrew Gruen), she finds that he, too, has fallen in love, with the supremely young-sweet-and-innocent Mariane (a pitch-perfect Beth Deitchman). The siblings' plan to force their father to grant each of them the right to marry is thwarted when Harpagon (played by GrayWolf—yep, that's the actor's name—as a comically paranoid blend of selfish calculation and pitiable self-delusion) announces his own intentions of marrying Mariane.
Complicating matters are the machinations of the sexy, debt-ridden matchmaker Frosine (played with hilarious commitment by Courtney Walsh) and the ongoing battle of wits between Valère and Master Jacques (Ben Knoll), Harpagon's beleaguered chef and footman. There is also the matter of Harpagon's 10,000 gold pieces, which he has recently hidden in the garden (guarded by a pack of Dobermans), and about which he constantly frets and worries.
It is the wealthy but stingy Harpagon's obsession with riches that is the trampoline for much of the play's humor, Harpagon lurching about in filthy old clothes because he is to cheap to spend money on anything that is not necessary. When he announces that he has promised Elise to an affluent foreigner ("He only exploits the most resource-rich Third World countries"), the plot is pushed into overdrive, resulting in the rapidly escalating misunderstandings for which French farce is known.
The secret to this kind of thing is pace, and despite the script's slight lack of focus in the second half, director Vieira keeps things spinning along at a pleasantly frisky pace. Though technically set in the 1600s, the modern-language text effectively places the story in a time-traversing world of its own, an attribute which Vieira highlights with his clever costuming scheme. Beautifully realized by costumer Michael A. Berg, the idea is that every period between Molière's day and our own finds some expression in the smashup wardrobe worn by The Miser's many characters. Someone might be wearing a Napoleonic coat, a bowler hat and sunglasses, for example. Just about everyone appears in tennis shoes at one point or another.
David Apple's stage set is just as clever, depicting Harpagon's once-opulent home as a palace left to deteriorate by its master's penny-pinching neglect. A nice recurring sight gag is Harpagon's furniture, of which every chair, table and fireplace grate has been chained down so that no one can steal it.
Under Vieira's inventive hand, Molière's various pieces add up to a very satisfying and eye-pleasing whole. Harpagon may be content to serve his guests a dinner of bread crumbs and weak tea, but with this enjoyable production of The Miser, Ross Valley Players present Molière's treat as a tasty feast of theatrical pleasures.
'The Miser' runs Thursday&–Sunday through Feb. 14. Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday&–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. The Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. $15&–$25; Jan. 22 at 6:45pm, singles reception precedes, $25&–$30. 415.456.9555.
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