Monday, August 29, 2011

Sara Topham and Ben Carlson in The Misanthrope at Stratford.
Two or three years ago, Robert Brustein took back the notorious position he had sketched out in his 1967 call-to-arms, "No More Masterpieces," with a wimpy apology titled, aptly enough, "More Masterpieces." (For some reason, he forgot the "please.")  In it, the former artistic director of the A.R.T. - who had given the go-ahead to one desecration of the Western canon after another for something like two decades - finally whimpered that he was "ready to concede that the postmodern movement may have gone too far."

Okay - thanks for sharing, Bob!  We'll file that under "Far Too Little and Twenty Years Too Late," as we trip off to see Diane Paulus's Happy Meal re-write of Porgy and Bess at the theatre you founded!

But what recently called Brustein's pathetic essay(s) to my mind was the sad response to a genuine masterpiece that's unfolding right now at the Stratford Festival in Canada.  David Grindley's sparkling production of Molière's The Misanthrope - in Richard Wilbur's brilliant translation, of course - will be lighting up the Festival's main stage through October 29, and if you're in Toronto or Detroit, or on the East Coast, or really anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere during that time, you may want to make the journey out to Stratford to catch it.  If you love Molière, you really owe yourself the trip.

For I promise you will never see a better production; indeed, this is the best version of the great French playwright I've ever seen - even the best I've seen at Stratford, which has a long tradition of exquisite success in Molière. The idea for this mounting was originated by Brian Bedford - fresh from his triumph on Broadway with The Importance of Being Earnest - and was clearly chosen as a showcase for two of the Festival's leading actors, Ben Carlson and Sara Topham (at top), both of whom have made reputations for themselves as exponents of articulate theatre for thinking people. Bedford himself has a curiously similar rep, only with a twist.

This distinguished actor is, I'd argue, also the most versatile and successful director at Stratford (which makes him one of the best in North America); I always schedule his production on the roster of my annual visit, and frankly I've never been seriously disappointed, even though the variety of his output has been stunning (everything from Waiting for Godot to Private Lives to King Lear - yes all of them strikingly good). But Bedford's method makes him an outlier in our current theatre; over the years he has known everyone and been in everything, and so clearly bases his productions on his own well of experience from past versions he's had first-hand knowledge of; indeed, I'm not sure I've ever seen Bedford direct a script that he himself hadn't already been in, years before.

This makes him the last exemplar of an oral tradition which is dying in the theatre - he is clearly passing down how things are done to the next generation of actors, just as parents pass down their religious and cultural customs to their offspring. Indeed, when you watch a Bedford production, you sometimes wonder if you aren't also watching the ghosts of Michael Langham and Tyrone Guthrie moving across the stage behind the actors. Bedford is, in short, the personification of everything that Robert Brustein was trying to destroy with "No More Masterpieces."

Alas, due to illness Brian had to step down from The Misanthrope (he had also hoped to play Oronte - as he often manages smoothly the double trick, as in Earnest, of directing a sterling production while also shining as its star). But the ailing actor left the production in good hands - director David Grindley is also an old hand at Molière, and he has replaced Bedford with the able Peter Hutt (whom we usually see at the Shaw). The rest of the cast, which included Stratford mainstay Juan Chioran and another Shaw alumna, the great Kelli Fox (the more-talented sister of Michael J.) left one with little doubt that the production would be splendid.

Still, I was slightly surprised at just how splendid it turned out to be. John Lee Beatty's set - all chandeliers and Boucher - was ravishing, and Robin Fraser Paye's costumes would have seemed almost too scrumptious if they hadn't also been so sly - Célimène floated in a cloud of cream and cherry, below, while Alceste stewed in a vat of pale green.  For the record, the production wasn't entirely "traditional" - it was subtly updated by a century, from Molière's own era to the decades just before the "deluge" that Louis XV predicted, when rococo manners had reached their absolute zenith. Thus the usual brittle chorus of seventeenth-century harpsichords was replaced by the mournful calls of eighteenth-century viols, and a melancholic, twilit mood always seemed to be almost in the offing.

A perfect cast in perfect costumes on a perfect set . . . but sorry, the critics aren't buying!
At the center of all this corrupting luxury, Ben Carlson's unhappily honest Alceste and Sara Topham's delectably flirtatious Célimène were clearly a match for each other intellectually - and a match romantically, too, which brought to the comedy's bitter finale a surprisingly poignant tinge of tragedy; I've never felt more for these two, or for the loss of their mutual love. Perhaps this was because Carlson proved a surprisingly humane Alceste - he was more exasperated than disgusted with mankind's hypocritical follies, an approach which generally worked wonderfully, although perhaps at the finish Carlson lacked the inner, puritanical rigidity which makes sense of his final ultimatum to poor Célimène. Meanwhile Topham - who has never looked more beautiful - was far more than just a vivacious coquette; she had a taste for snark, it's true, but her Célimène was also a brilliant wit as well, and one both rebelling against the strictures of her social role while understanding that at twenty she was still allowed a little room for child's play.

These two lead performances were wonderful enough - I'd even go so far as to say that Topham's was definitive - but Grindley's work with the milieu of these two mismatched romantics was what really made the production memorable. Generally Molière's misanthrope must make his way through a gallery of simpering fops - but here, he was swimming in a tank of sharks. Kelli Fox's Arsinoé - a would-be moral puppetmaster with her claws only barely in her gloves - was truly chilling in her hauteur, and for once her conversations came off as the calculated duels they truly are. And even Peter Hutt's Oronte - often played as something close to an idiot - was here a scheming climber, with an angry taste for brutality sometimes peeking out from under his silks. Given this environment, the weary gentility of Juan Chioran's Philinte and Martha Farrell's Eliante truly charmed - although it must be said that with an exquisitely attentive irony, director Grindley allowed even his villains their own heartbreaks and disappointments.

Indeed, perhaps the intellectual balance of this production was what made it most remarkable; sometimes Molière's brilliant point-counterpoint structures seemed to almost float in space before us as the characters conversed.  I confess I've never really felt that Molière, great as he is, was quite in Shakespeare's league; but this production made me almost change my mind (at least in the case of this particular play).

But alas, few of the Canadian critics were so persuaded - because, rather obviously, they'd never gotten Brustein's second memo, and were still in thrall to the first.   Their reviews were in a way heartbreaking, however, because they could tell how wonderful a show this was, but somehow they just couldn't admit it to themselves.  The erratic Richard Ouzonian, of the Toronto Star, for instance, confessed that the acting was "flawless" and the production "beautifully designed and carefully staged." But that wasn't enough, he carped - because there was no concept:

Except for some hats and scarves that Celimene tries on at her first entrance, there are no props. None. No one sips a coffee or drinks some wine. There’s no texture, nothing to tell us more about the world these characters live in other than that they’re well-dressed, bitchy and chatty.

And finally, in a line that might have been lifted directly from Brustein:

Before our eyes, it turns into a classy evening of museum theatre, something from long ago we look at and revere, but never really understand.

Ugh. One wonders, then, why costume dramas like The Tudors flourish on cable.  Meanwhile J. Kelly Nestruck, of the Globe and Mail, likewise half-believed his own eyes, and wrote:

"David Grindley’s production of The Misanthrope dares to let an audience find the modern resonance in Molière’s masterpiece, rather than thrusting it upon them with camera-phones and references to Twitter."

But then in an abrupt reversal he added:

"It neatly illustrates both the pleasures and the perils in such a straight-forward approach, however, as its solidness is matched by a stuffiness – and actors stuck in gorgeous, but stifling costumes that seem to wear them rather than vice versa."

Sigh.  Almost schizophrenic, no? Yet those were both typical of the press's scarily anhedonic reactions: "This is a marvelous production," the critics agreed, "only it's not, really, because it's traditionally costumed." It's enough to make you wonder at the superficiality of these people, and perhaps muse at the lock-step orthodoxy of the supposedly "revolutionary."

So please, somebody send around Brustein's latest to the Canadian papers! Then maybe theatres can continue to keep what's best about our theatre alive - until that happy day when Brustein himself is long forgotten, and we'll once again be allowed to have more masterpieces.


  1. Brustein does say "please," although not until the end.

  2. I stand corrected. Would his mistakes were as small as mine.