The Miser by Molière is one of those old plays that has been adapted and translated for hundreds of years since its premiere in Paris in 1668. A comedy of greed, love, and mistaken identity, The Miser has been performed all over the world as its themes are still relevant today in most every culture. Actors’ Theatre of Columbus is currently presenting an adaptation by Miles Malleson of this work in Schiller Park, which I attended last night with hundreds of other people on a rare night with no rain, at least not in downtown Columbus. I was concerned that the play would be too austere and stuffy for my tastes (I’m a steak and mashed potatoes kind of guy, not veal and au gratin potatoes with garnish), but I was surprised at just how funny and upbeat this old warhorse was to an audience of all ages spread about on lawn chairs and blankets.
The play is about a stingy widower, Harpagon (Ted Amore), and his efforts to hide his wealth while also controlling the lives of his children, Elise (Elizabeth Harelik) and Cleante (Danny Turek). He engages a matchmaker, Frosine (MB Griffith), to help set him up with a beautiful young girl in town, Marianne (Lexi Bright), unaware that the young lady and his son Cleante are interested in each other. Harpagon then promises his daughter Elise to Sgr. Anselm (Robert McDannold), a rich old man, though she really wants to marry Valere (Andy Falter), her father’s steward. It’s only a matter of time before Cleante’s servant, LaFleche (David Harewood), discovers where Harpagon has hidden his fortune, and the grouchy father has to decide which means more to him: his children’s happiness or his money. It doesn’t help that some people are not who they appear to be, and everyone’s true identity is revealed in a surprisingly hilarious finale.
Director Pamela Hill has done a marvelous job in keeping the pace brisk (after a slow beginning) and tone very light, the only way this kind of comedy can really work. The outdoor set by Trent Bean is awash in pastels, appropriately bright, and sturdy enough to keep up with all of the action. The raked stage is at an angle that had me a bit worried what with the tables and chairs that figure into the action, but everyone navigated the space like pros. The cast often gets physical with each other, and fight choreographer Angela Barch-Shamell has made sure that every slap and shove looks intense while also being safe for the actors.
The cast is uniformly very good, navigating the tricky dialogue with a minimum of flubs, but a few people deserve special mention; Ted Amore as Harpagon, Danny Turek as Cleante, Lexi Bright as Marianne, and MB Griffith as Frosine. Mr. Amore has a firm voice tailor made for this kind of material, and he is spry and quick to react which helps to keep things moving; Mr. Turek looks right at home prancing about in red with bows and ribbons, a perfect fop with cartoonish expressions just right for his character; Ms. Bright brings a shot of adrenaline when Marianne finally appears in the second act at a point when the plot was beginning to sag a bit; and Ms. Griffith has a smoky voice and demeanor that is very appealing, even if she isn’t quite matching the frenetic level of everyone around her; her Frosine is sly and knowing with a job to do, and she isn’t going anywhere unless she is paid for it. It’s possible that Ms. Griffith may even be miscast as her personality carries in a way that belies the limits of her secondary role; I hope to see more of her in the future.
William Bragg’s sound design is quite impressive, with dialogue sounding crisp and quite loud to reach everyone in the large outdoor audience. Aside from a few moments of distortion and microphones cutting in and out, all of the dialogue and music was well amplified and sounded quite full, which can’t be easy to achieve outdoors in a park. Special credit should also be afforded to costume designer Emily Jeu for creating the highly detailed and colorful coats and dresses on display; her designs are especially helpful in differentiating cast members to those in the audience far from the stage, and her color choices cleverly telegraph some of the surprises near the end of the play.
Actors’ Theatre of Columbus presents plays on a “pay what you will” basis with a limited number of reserved seats for sale. Members of the company walk around with baskets for donations at intermission and after the performance, and I was glad to see so many people stepping up to support live free theatre for an audience encompassing every economic level. The park is for everyone, and Actors’ Theatre of Columbus’s mission to bring quality theatre (and I do mean quality) free of charge to everyone who wants to experience it is noble as well as necessary; it can foster an appreciation for the arts for those that may not get to experience it otherwise. With The Miser, if the laughter and thunderous applause from the crowd means anything, they are succeeding.
*** out of ****
The Miser continues through to September 6th in Schiller Park on Jaeger Street in German Village in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.theactorstheatre.org/the-miser.html