The last time I saw a Molière comedy at Duke Energy Theater was so long ago that the Duke was the most technically advanced theater in town. Charlotte Rep's 1990 production of Tartuffe underscored the Duke's supremacy with a stairway up to the balcony in the middle of the stage - and a live video feed that scrutinized visitors as they approached the rear entrance to the set.
Shakespeare Carolina's take on The Misanthrope isn't quite as gee-whiz as all that, but director Heather Bucsh takes a modernizing direction that Rep's Randell Haynes never dreamed of, making her moderns very much about social media. Alceste's friend Philinte is so absorbed by his smartphone that he is occasionally inattentive to the misanthrope's perpetual bellyaching. Celimene, the object of Alceste's frustrated adoration, is so consumed with Facebook celebrity that he can't begin to get close. Or so we surmise from the design of David Hensley's projections, with updates frequently splashed on the upstage wall behind the trifling coquette.
The bold concept never falls flat, because Bucsh has assembled a magnificent cast to carry out her scheme, something I've been longing to say about a ShakesCar production for years. Robert Brafford finds a perfect pitch for Alceste's interminable grumbling, counterbalancing dogma and impulse, not to mention certitude and confusion, while juggling a stream of responses that shuttle from worship to condemnation as Celimene's irresistible dodges continue.
And he's young! Normally, it takes an actor verging on middle age to capture these inner conflicts so exquisitely. That's fine in a period piece with fancy dresses, starchy cravats, and pantaloons, but Brafford can carry it off in the youthful punkish style we need here. So Caryn Crye as Celimene hardly has to pretend that she's a day over 16. She isn't taking as many selfies as Carmen Schultz over at Charlotte Squawks, but Crye captured all of Celimene's juvenile vanity and alluring guile after starting off a bit oddly last Friday.
Similar excellence permeates the other major roles. Norman Burt is slovenly yet way cool as Philinte, transforming him from a sensible advisor into the quintessential slacker. As Alceste's rival Oronte, Ted Patterson is nicely high-strung and egotistical, making the scene where Alceste is prodded into giving an honest assessment of his sonnet a true delight. It is hardly surprising at all that this Oronte would take Alceste to court over such a paltry wound.
Yet for sheer hypocrisy, there is no competing with Maggie Monahan's devastating portrait of Arsinoe, the jealous prude who lectures Celimene on her looseness and then turns around to shamelessly pursue Alceste. The scene where Arsinoe unveils her true character is where Bucsh's concept, abetted by her own costume design, reach their zenith.
Like many modernized productions, this one stumbles a bit when there's a chance to truly hammer home the pertinent nail. I'm specifically referring to the denouement when everyone gangs up on Celimene to denounce her duplicity. It would have been so wonderful if someone would have unfriended her! That would have been a deliciously wicked blow. But Molière and Bucsh aren't at a loss about how to end the comedy. So it not only plays on, it also plays well.
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