The Misanthrope at Court Theatre | Theater review
Court's glitzy revival of Molière's satire finds another way to make the title character an outsider.
Charles Newell's ambitious revival of Molière's satire of societal hypocrisy—to be followed by a Tartuffe utilizing the same cast—sparkles, figuratively and literally. A shimmering gold lamé curtain hangs as a centerpiece of John Culbert's set, while costume designer Jacqueline Firkins outfits the actors in baroque couture all in black and gold.
And the cast matches that blend of glitter and gloom. Notably, Newell has filled almost every role with African-American actors, a choice that adds a new layer of meaning to be chewed over—the only characters portrayed by non-black actors are a servant and Alceste (Erik Hellman), the truth-teller disgusted by the niceties and flatteries of what is here a polite, and black, society. (Both Hellman and Elizabeth Ledo, playing the servant, are white.)
Just as importantly, it gives us the chance to see fine actors the likes of A.C. Smith, Kamal Angelo Bolden and Allen Gilmore take on classic roles they'd be unlikely to play elsewhere—at least not all at the same time. Smith brings a deal of gravitas to Oronte, the bad-poetry-writing suitor of Célimène, the superficial prima donna who's also Alceste's unlikely love (played by Grace Gealey with an appealing poutiness). Hellman, for his part, plays the title role with a real sense of anguish—unlike some renditions of Alceste, his takes no pleasure in his displeasure.
Gilmore goes drag as Célimène's frigid frenemy Arsinoé, playing the busybody deliciously straight (but for one moment between the women that feels like a directorial misfire). Yet Travis Turner and Michael Pogue, as the foppish marquesses also wooing Célimène, throw shade with enough zest to qualify for the next season of Drag Race.
And Célimène's reads of various other society figures for the amusement of her entourage, a crucial scene in the play, is set to a languid loop and beat by the director, who also sets Oronte's sonnet to music, both decisions that feel capriciously ornamental. They contribute to the play's effervescent first half feeling tonally different from the second, when Célimène's duplicitousness comes back to haunt her—a scene Newell renders as a kind of existential prosecution. This Misanthrope is a comedy in which no one gets a happy ending.