Ann Marie Lonsdale has been called, on occasion, the Molière of University Theater. She lives up to this title in her pleasantly voguish production of The Misanthrope.
This play is a touch different for those who know Molière for his farce. It is certainly rich with comedy, but the overall tone is rather serious, and the plot builds on compelling character interactions and surprisingly entertaining discursive interludes rather than sudden, sweeping shifts.
Alceste (Sean Michael Henry) is disgusted by the whole world of men and is not at all hesitant to voice his feelings, much to the dismay of his friend Philinte (Christian Doll). More problematic, however, is Alceste's rampant jealousy brought on by the affections his beloved Celimene (Katie Carlson) receives from other men. When Celimene's back-stabbing friend Arsinoe (Juliana Thornton) confronts Alceste with evidence that Celimene is unchaste in more than her manners, Alceste is quick to believe her, providing the impetus for the end of the play, which I will not relate here.
This production moves limpidly through many rich textures, ranging from farcical comedy to nearly tragic drama. One gets the impression that something has gone right immediately upon entering the theater. The visuals on stage are simple, stylish, and work strongly in collaboration with each other and, later, with the acting. Pete Sloane's light design gently enlivens the warm, crisp hues and diagonal contours of Coralie duBois Hunter's set, which comes complete with red velvet furniture, empty picture frames, and a Warhol-esque homage to Celimene. The two are new to their respective roles at UT, and it will be exciting to see their work in the future.
Once the action begins, it is not long before one notices Asta Hostetter's eclectic costume, hair, and makeup scheme, which complements the performances in rather obvious but not gimmicky or distracting ways. The pimped out Oronte (Ian Wood) is particularly amusing.
The only technical element that stands out, for better or worse, is the sound design by Lindsey Pawlowski. There is a varied underscore to most of the action, which is no doubt clever and accomplished--the strains from Requiem for a Dream under Arsinoe's speeches are hilarious--but might strike some purists as overbearing. I suspect that reactions to the sound will be mixed; I leave it to the audience's reckoning.
The general effect of the designs, in concert, is to lift us out of the U of C and into a quasi-abstract place where speaking in rhymed couplets is credible and human. The actors, without exception, occupy this space very comfortably in a smart set of performances.
The only criticism I have of the performances is also the highest praise: there are no surprises in the performances. Ms. Lonsdale cast types and did nothing to work outside of these types, opting to exploit them. Anyone who knows these actors or has seen them perform knows exactly what to expect; they are using stock moves rather than dramatic invention.
That said, what comes out is pure gold. Sean Michael Henry gives an especially commanding performance. The plot centers on his character, and the performances center on him. His movements are nimble, despite a pair of absurdly tight jeans. He is also remarkably adept at speaking through the stylized language to give us real acting rather than an impressive oration. Every word falls trippingly, and he displays a stunning vocal and interpretative range, moving easily from casual conversation to an emotive roar. It is still more impressive when one remembers that, for much of the quarter, Henry was working on three shows at once. One would think, from his command of this stage and this text that it had been his life for the last month and a half.
The best credit to the rest of the cast is that they share the stage confidently and convincingly with Henry. Notably, Thornton smolders in the conclusion to this production's second act, and Carlson shows us a rare talent in a pair of heartbreaking second-act confrontations. Carlson and Thornton also share the stage in a delightfully tense scene, in which we are just waiting for them to tear each other's hair out.
Also worth mentioning is the comic relief provided by Zach McClain and Joe Perna, as the affably but bafflingly flamboyant marquises.