You have to smile at the continuity of human experience when a 350+ year old play can so describe our world and our unfruitful selfishness within it. The Misanthrope, a comedy of errors by Moliere, is updated here by contemporary playwright David Ives and renamed The School for Lies. Artistic Director James Ricks and Managing Director Jase Sullivan have opened the 25th Anniversary season of Agecroft Hall’s Shakespeare Festival with this wry adaptation.
If you’re going to consume some Elizabethan-era snarky French comedy, please do it at Agecroft Hall. I consider it a crown jewel of Richmond. The lush English gardens? The lawn that slopes down to the tree-lined river in the distance? The Hall itself, a grand estate literally moved from England to Richmond – one that has stood, in parts, since the 1300’s? Magnificent. Idyllic. I highly suggest you experience it at least once. The Shakespeare Festival is a perfect backdrop from which to enjoy it as well. Trust.
Whew, are we caught up? Good. Now let me tell you about this hilarious show.
First of all, let’s acknowledge the timelessness of the themes of The Misanthrope – which tackle the uses and abuses of flattery and defamation (simping and trolling), the litigiousness of fragile egos (cancel culture), gossip as manipulation (fake news), and the absurdity of it all (the facepalm that is human behavior). David Ives manages to weave the lyrical rhyming couplets of the 1600’s into a modern fabric of pop references that don’t induce groans. It may be the greatest trick of the play – it never feels like a fraud to its intent. The anachronisms land with a laugh every time.
While it neatly combines the old with the new, it maintains its 17th century setting in the stage design, costuming, and performance. They could have hamfisted the allegory by setting it in a modern Gen Z’ers loft in Brooklyn. It still would have made sense but the choice to stage prancing and hysterical French courtiers with a modern vocabulary is just funnier. And it is funny.
The play itself takes place solely in Celimene’s, the central protagonist’s, Parisian salon. The structure of The Misanthrope/The School for Lies recalls 20th century sitcoms that primarily take place in one room (Seinfeld, Friends etc).
Celimene is a recent widow, young and sought after – a flirt, flatterer and two-faced gossiper. She’s surrounded by courtiers and opportunistic hangers on. Philinte, the meek straight man in this comedy, in his reticence to confront anyone, sees his goals trampled just as he’s about to make his move. It is his spiteful mischief that sets off the errors upon which the comedy unfolds.
Frank, or Francois, enters the scene as the “bad boy” mysterious new guy with his condescending thoughts on everything just shouted at whim. His mild sin of outspokenness in a time where offense given is legally punishable is absurd in its banality but en pointe in its allegory. His acerbic pose is downgraded to poseur when confronted with Celimene’s acid tongue.
It’s theater so of course they fall in “love” with Philinte manipulating their motives – selfish and myopic as they may be. The supporting cast of courtiers and, well, misanthropes, serve up the setups for the leads’ punchlines and dissertations on truth and civility. Everyone here has some backfiring plan to get back, get over, or in some saucy parts, get under the objects of their ire or passion. Ives takes the antiquated swoons of white glove-slapping, powdered wig buffoonery and turns it into a play rooted in very human and timeless chicanery.
Much respect to this cast that projects such comfort with the work and their co-stars. This production of The School For Lies is an ensemble piece with many strong characters. It excels at giving each their space to shine. One of my favorite characteristics of stage performance in general is the synergy that grows between actors as the show is repeatedly presented. This cast is going to have a lot of fun in the coming weeks.
Lindsey Zelli’s Celimene, the key flatterer and defamer at the center of this salon melodrama, stood out. Ms. Zelli animates the character with enough broadness to sell the funny, but with enough humanity to invest us in the drama. A great balance of mime and gesture. I was sold.
The rest of the cast is a blast to watch. Hogan Holt’s dual performances as Basque and Dubois, manservants to the leads Alceste and Celimene respectively, is a riot. Ives uses the audience’s suspension of disbelief as a comic platform for jokes involving the double casting. It is as precious as it is very funny. The final twist (no spoilers) relies heavily on this tickle with subtle reference to a modern eye roll-inducing trope. It stuck the landing and had the opening night’s audience in stitches.
Matt Mitchell’s Frank and Sara Dabney Tisdale’s Arsinoe have great chemistry, with the most fun moments of the play coming during their scenes together. Evan Nasteff’s Acaste, the character with the least to say, does young, rich, entitled, and dumb with authority. Ives (via Moliere) gives each archetype of self-importance their spotlight and each of the actors in this production honors that focus.
It’s easy in our age to pursue the cult of the screen – flitting between televisions, laptops, and mobile devices – and not remember what it’s like to collectively view the result of creative cooperation unfolding in real time. Theater has persisted through this era, not unlike live music, due to its immediacy. It is inimitable without a time machine, a total “you shoulda been there” type of thing. I can say you should have caught this show but the beauty is you can catch your own unique performance in Richmond, at Agecroft Hall, until June 25th. Hit their site for details and showtimes HERE.