John Williams as Alceste and Mattie Hawkinson as Jennifer in Quintessence Theatre Group's THE MISANTHROPE. (Photo credit: Shawn May)

Quintessence Puts a Crimp into Its Molière: THE MISANTHROPE

by Gina Vitolo-Stevens

Quintessence Theatre Group closes its third season with its Chocolate & Champagne Repertory of two classics: Martin Crimp’s adaptation of Molière’s THE MISANTHROPE, and George Bernard Shaw’s ARMS AND THE MAN – in rotation Wednesday, April 17 through Sunday, May 26, at the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy. Both productions are under the direction of Alexander Burns.

Playwright Crimp’s version of Molière’s THE MISANTHROPE, first seen in 1996 at the Young Vic, now includes more contemporary allusions found to spotlight media celebrity in the movie industry, and the shallow appeal of the characters’ insatiable social climb. Many are so good at it, they hardly break a sweat.

Ethics among the artistic noblesse are rarely evident, so the main protagonist, Alceste, (John Williams), a successful British playwright, stands out on the moral landscape as Molière’s misanthrope. Originally played by Molière himself, Alceste unhappily chooses higher ground, closer to Mt. Olympus, rather than amongst mere mortals. Humans do not meet his impossibly high standards, so he surmises that brutal honesty is the only holy water that will eradicate his demons – insincerity, deceit and compromise. Alceste detests hypocrisy and elitism, thus alienating himself from any intimacy, especially with his paramour, the gossipy, narcissistic movie starlet, Jennifer (Mattie Hawkinson). “Jenny” as her sycophant “friends” call her, is the self-centered, sexually promiscuous main squeeze of Alceste. True to classic literature, she is the siren who lures every male cohort to the proverbial rocks – her agents, fellow actors, and writer buddies who double dip at the table of avarice, trying all the time to crawl nonchalantly to dry land. She frequently has Alceste questioning her loyalty to their relationship.

John Williams as Alceste. Daniel Fredrick as John, and Sean Close as Covington in THE MISANTHROPE at Quintessence Theatre Group. (Photo credit: Shawn May)

John Williams as Alceste. Daniel Fredrick as John, and Sean Close as Covington in THE MISANTHROPE at Quintessence Theatre Group. (Photo credit: Shawn May)

Hawkinson’s character blows off her adversaries with cat-like reflexes. Her Jenny has the ability to voice her opinions behind people’s backs, cleanly drawing blood without leaving much on the white carpet. She will even attack from the front with little remorse. Hawkinson is stealthy in the pursuit. You don’t know who she is after, but you kind of want to be in her sights.

Williams could have colored his choices as Alceste to show more emotional peaks and valley. He is one-dimensional, as Costume Designer Jane Casanave dresses him as drab and wrinkled in a casual dark grey suit with worn sneakers. No socks give the image that he came to the party not wanting to play nicely with the others. That validates his intentions. We want to side with Alceste, although his lack of passion sways us to, instead, cheer on the other quirky players and their manic moods.

John (Daniel Fredrick) is the straight best man to Alceste’s maddened title character. Fredrick conveys the sensitivity and tactfulness of John with ease.

Others include Ellen, a reporter whose tape-recorder is always on (Sonja Field), dressed sharply by Casanave, ready to cleave to any glitterati with dirt to spill for her column; the smarmy, self-serving gigolo actor Julian (Christopher Burke) played to the hilt a la greasy-slicked ponytail and smooth-as-a-snake repartee by Burke; and Jennifer’s agent, Alexander (veteran Ames Adamson), a Michael Caine impersonator with Adamson’s own injection of the play-ah persona; and two stand-out performances by Jennifer’s former, drama teacher Marcia (hysterical and dry Barrymore Award winner, E. Ashley Izard) and Covington (Sean Close), an over-the-top critic with ambitious, playwright aspirations. Having seen Close in other productions, the physical transformation was astounding, and his swishy yet restrictive body language was grounds for attention – a caged animal that you’d like to pet and slap at the same time. Khris Davis rounded the ensemble as Simon, and the Messenger.

The action set in a 16-square-foot ultra-modern hotel room, does not evoke the feel of upscale. A movie star such as Jennifer, would have treasures – “stuff” adorning an otherwise generic pad. This is what divas do – they have staff provide creature comforts on the road. The minimalistic stage floats in black with white furnishings. The glossy, red lipstick 70’s telephone is the only hint that high-maintenance Jenny crashes here.

The finale includes a dance choreographed by Janet Pilla. The cast looks poised in their powdered wigs and lovely 17th Century costumes, but a musical number in an unmusical production seemed, albeit entertaining, slightly out of place. The highlight is when Alceste, sick of the hypocrisy, walks out on the lot.

This talented cast and production team illustrate how rewarding the challenge posed by Crimp’s adaptation proves to be – even if the audience still feels like voyeurs, rather than voyagers in the journey.

by Moliere, adapted by Martin Crimp
Directed by Alexander Burns
April 17 – May 26, 2013
Quintessence Theatre Group
at Sedgwick Theater
7137 Germantown Avenue
Mt. Airy (Philadelphia), PA 19118
877-238-5596; 215-240-6055

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