Stage Door Review

The Miser

Thursday, August 25, 2022

✭✭✩✩

by Molière, translated & adapted by Ranjit Bolt, directed by Antoni Cimolino

Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford

August 26-October 29, 2022

Fay: “Millennials may be woke but they’re broke”

To celebrate the 400th birthday of great French playwright Molière, the Stratford Festival is staging his 1688 comedy The Miser (L’Avare) in a 1995 translation and adaptation by Ranjit Bolt. Celebrating Molière is something a classic theatre festival should do. Bolt’s version of The Miser, however, and the current Stratford production of it is more a celebration of Bolt and desecration of Molière. The acting is a shouting contest to see which actor can go the farthest over the top. Being extremely competitive, Colm Feore as the titular miser wins every time.

In 2017 Stratford presented Bolt’s translation of Molière’s Tartuffe (1664) with great success. As in his Tartuffe, Bolt updates the play from the 17th century to the present. Molière wrote Tartuffe in rhyming couplets and The Miser in prose. Bolt retains the form for both. But unlike his Tartuffe, Bolt, unrestrained by the need for verse, irredeemably demeans Molière’s language in The Miser. All Bolt retains from Molière is the skeleton of the plot. The rest he has fleshed out by coarsening the speech, referring to current events and celebrities and by trying to cram in as many brand names as possible. The Festival’s version has further updated Bolt’s references. If you attend The Miser at Stratford hoping to hear the playwright’s witty dialogue, be prepared to hear about Burger King, Joe Fresh, TikTok, Value Village as well as Brangelina, Justin Bieber, Joe Clark and Dr. Oz among others too many to count. This makes the play less one of the great character studies in comedy and more of a panto for adults.

The great pity is that all the potty-mouth insults and the contemporary references get the laughs mostly from the surprise of hearing such words in a classical play in a supposed temple of dramatic art. This makes the current production of The Miser ideal for anyone who could care less about Molière and would be just as happy seeing a modern British sex farce.

Bolt has not merely relocated the action to 1995 but to London. Director Antoni Cimolino and crew have taken the liberty of further relocating the action of Bolt’s translation to somewhere in Canada in 2022. While Bolt keeps the general plot, he gives most of the characters new names. 70-year-old Gerald Harper (60-year-old Harpagon in Molière) has two adult children by his now deceased wife – Eleanor (Élise) and Charlie (Cléante). Both are in love and both need Harper’s consent to marry or they will be cut out of his will and lose the fortune he has squirrelled away.

Unfortunately, both have fallen in love with people they know Harper will reject. Eleanor loves Victor (Valère), a young man of unknown parentage who has become Harper’s butler. Charlie loves the penniless Marianne (Mariane), whom Harper plans to marry himself. Eleanor, Victor and Charlie with the help of Charlie’s friend Fletcher (Cléante’s valet La Flèche) and, later on, the matchmaker Fay (Frosine) conspire to help the children marry whom they love and still inherit Harper’s money.

Even from this basic summary it should be obvious that no amount of updating of Molière’s language and reference will make a plot from 1668 suitable for 2022. Harper is a notorious miser and yet he employs a butler (Victor), a cook/chauffeur (Jack), a valet for Charlie (Fletcher) and two more servants (Claudia and Mervin). In 1668 when a servant would be happy simply to have food and lodging in return for work this situation might make sense, but in 2022 it make no sense at all. In 1668 it might make sense that Harper’s adult children live with him, since children did so then until they married. But in 2022 we wonder why the miser Harper hasn’t kicked them out of the house and  saved himself the expense of looking after them. And why in 2022 does Harper need a go-between like Fay to arrange a marriage between himself and Eleanor?

Since Bolt’s updating has made nonsense of the plot and his rewriting has totally erased any semblance of Molière’s literary wit, there is really no reason to see Stratford’s production of The Miser at all unless the production itself somehow overrode the mess Bolt has made of the play.

Sadly, the production itself is a mess. Chris Abraham’s production of Bolt’s translation of Tartuffe was a success because Abraham’s direction was rigorous and incisive. In The Miser Cimolino’s direction is neither. He seems to have encouraged excess in all the performances and has allowed Colm Feore to go completely out of control. Shouting, mugging, funny walks, funny voices, sexual gestures and miscellaneous shtick – sometimes several of these at once – characterize the acting style of the play.

Feore is the worst offender who, though Harper admits to being 70, rushes all over the stage and up and down stairs in the midst of jokes about the lack of vigour of someone his age. In contrast, William Hutt when he played the same role at Stratford in 1998 spent most of his time in a wheelchair covered with a lap rug. This reinforced the idea both of Harpagon as a decrepit old man unsuitable for a vibrant young bride and the idea of Harpagon’s cheapness since he wouldn’t pay to heat his own home.

Next worst is Qasim Khan, who played an earnest Adam, father of mankind, in Erin Shields’s Paradise Lost at Stratford in 2018. Here he camps up his gestures and voice inflections to such an extent that it would be easier to believe he was interested in the sexually ambiguous cook/chauffeur Jack (Ron Kennell) rather than Eleanor. Khan is not helped by designer Julie Fox who dresses him in a maroon velvet suit topped with a satin-lined cape. How could that be appropriate except for a masquerade? Did she forget Charlie is supposed to be penniless and that the time period is 2022? And Cimolino gives him an inhaler, I guess, because asthma is so funny.

Just the reverse of Colm Feore is Jamie Mac, who plays Victor without any of the excess encouraged in the other actors. As a result Mac’s Victor is sturdy and dependable and provides an anchor of stability in a production flying off in all directions. The other actor who gives a strong, solid performance is David Collins as Arthur Edgerton (Anselme in Molière), who appears near the end of the play. Collins seems to realize that the more restrained his character is the more humorous the outrageous tale he has to tell will be.

Some actors allow themselves only one or two lapses into excess. These include the more sensible Marianne of Beck Lloyd. Lucy Peacock has an amusing turn as the vampish, leather-clad Fay. It’s just too bad Bolt’s version gives her so little to do. Other actors who don’t fully go over the top but aim in that direction include Alexandra Lainfiesta as Eleanor, Ron Kennell as Jack and Emilio Viera as Fletcher.

In 1998 designer Mérédith Caron provided a much more effective set for the arch-miser of all misers. She portrayed Harpagon as living in a grey, totally undecorated room as if he were already living in a mausoleum. For the present Miser Julie Fox placed Harper in a room with heaps of junk piled left and right as if Harper were a hoarder in general rather than a miser. The look has the opposite effect from what is intended in that it shows how much miscellanea Harper has acquired rather than how extremely frugal he is supposed to be.

Cimolino adds to the confusion by adding a scene early on when Harper takes delivery of two vases. The joke is supposed to be that Harper does not give the deliverymen a tip. The question is, “Why has a miser bought two vases?”

Molière began his career writing farces. What Cimolino does not seem to realize is that over time Molière’s view of comedy deepened to focus on obsessive characters and the harm they cause others and themselves. These late plays about monomania – such as Tartuffe (1664), Dom Juan (1665), The Misanthrope (1666), The Miser (1668), The Imaginary Invalid (1673) – are so celebrated because Molière has pushed comedy so far that it comes very close to tragedy. Without the deus ex machina of the King, Tartuffe would end in disaster for Orgon and his family. Dom Juan goes to hell. The titular misanthrope Alceste goes into exile. And without Anselme’s deliberately far-fetched tale, all the characters of The Miser would face utter misery.

The Miser at Stratford in 1998 ended with its focus on William Hutt as Harpagon all alone slowly counting his money. As I remember it, Hutt allowed a cloud to pass over Harpagon’s initial joy as he realized that, yes, he had his money, but he had lost everything, family and friends, that would make life worth living. It was chilling to see that Harpagon had cast away all living things and now was left with a heap of metal as cold as death.

There is no such depth in The Miser now at Stratford. Harper’s children, their partners and servants all dance away to celebrate their good fortune leaving Harper centre stage gleefully caressing his dollar bills with no hint of the lifeless future he has brought down upon himself.

With a plot that has become nonsense when updated to the present, with language with no relation to Molière’s urbane prose style, with acting less subtle than in sketch comedy, there is no reason to see The Miser this year. Stratford may call the play The Miser but it is no longer the masterpiece by Molière. If you want to see a contemporary comedy there are more nuanced comedies than this available on streaming services which also do not have a top price of $222.00.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Colm Feore as Harper; David Collins as Arthur Edgerton (centre) with Alexandra Lainfiesta as Eleanor, Beck Lloyd as Marianne, Steve Ross as Detective,John Kirkpatrick as Mervin, Hilary Adams as Claudia, Ron Kennell as Jack and Lucy Peacock as Fay; Qasim Khan as Charlie and Beck Lloyd as Marianne; Colm Feore as Harper, Alexandra Lainfiesta as Eleanor and Jamie Mac as Victor. © 2022 David Hou.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.