Monday, August 15, 2022

Revisiting Stratford: The Miser and Girls & Boys

Colm Feore, Lucy Peacock and Qasim Khan star in The Miser, at Canada's Stratford Festival. (Photo: David Hou)

This summer I was able to cross the Canadian border for the first time since COVID, on a trip framed by brief visits to Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of the Shaw Festival. Regrettably, my timing at Stratford didn’t allow for the chance to see All’s Well That Ends Well, a problem comedy I love that gets produced only infrequently. But I did manage to check out artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s production of Molière’s 1668 prose comedy The Miser (at the Festival Theatre) in a contemporary adaptation by Ranjit Bolt that has been embellished further with Ontario references. In Bolt’s version Molière’s title character, Harpagon, is called Harper, and his children, Élise and Cléante, who desire to marry the people they love without risking being disinherited by their parsimonious papa, are called Eleanor and Charlie. The director’s note in the program argues that the subject of greed and the generational tensions make The Miser relevant to a 2022 audience. Of course you can make that case for any of Molière’s best satires; human nature, after all, hasn’t changed much through the centuries. I’m not sure, though, that the present-day setting adds anything to the play or sharpens its thrust.

I like and admire Molière, but aside from Ben Jonson and the Restoration comic writers – where the challenges are in the language – it’s hard to think of a great playwright who’s trickier to pull off. I saw Brian Bedford in fine productions of The School for Wives (on Broadway) and Tartuffe (in Stratford) decades ago, but most of the revivals I’ve seen have been overconceptualized or frantic. The emotional realism of Shakespeare’s comedies grounds them for today’s actors, and that seems to be true for high comedy from every era. But Molière based his plays on commedia dell’ arte sketches (and, in the case of The Miser, on the Roman dramatist Plautus’s Aulularia), which were broad farces. It’s possible that a director could make them work with celebrated comic geniuses in the major roles who bring their own patented styles and shtick to the party. But that’s merely a guess – I’ve never seen an attempt to bring Molière characters together with star comedians, and perhaps they’d overpower the text.

Cimolino’s Miser goes the frantic route. It’s in the style of Viewpoints, where the actors never stop moving. Viewpoints shows generally drive me to distraction; this one didn’t, perhaps because the approach was clearly an effort to find a solution to a stylistic puzzle, not just an imposition onto a dramatic text that doesn’t demand one. It isn’t successful, but some of the actors – Colm Feore as Harper, Lucy Peacock as the matchmaker Fay, Qasim Khan as Charlie and Ron Kennell as Jack, Harper’s butler – are quite entertaining. The role of Fay, incidentally, is an example of a narrative conceit that eludes Bolt’s effort to make The Miser fit a twenty-first-century scenario.

Fiona Mongillo in Girls & Boys, at the Stratford Festival.

This is the second season of a Stratford company called Here For Now. I caught the final evening of their latest offering, a one-woman piece called Girls & Boys written by the British playwright Dennis Kelly, who’s best known for writing the book for Matilda: The Musical. It premiered at the Royal Court in London, where Carey Mulligan performed it in 2018; in Stratford the star was an actress unknown to me named Fiona Mongillo who is also Here For Now’s artistic director.

Girls & Boys is a portrait of the disintegration of a marriage between two driven, ambitious people, told from the point of the view of the woman, who is witty, imaginative, pragmatic left-leaning and working class by birth. She spots the man in an airport queue, where she initially disparages and then applauds his interaction with a pair of models trying to charm their way into the middle of the line. What impresses the woman is not just that he’s clever and self-aware enough to see through their flirtatiousness but the way he calls them on it. They marry and have two children, a girl and a boy. She talks her way into an assistantship with a high-profile journalist; her career takes off and she struggles to navigate the tensions between work and motherhood. She’s great at both; what she turns out to be less adept at is reading her husband’s response to her success as his own business spirals downwards. Kelly’s writing is skillful and colorful, and for the first two-thirds of the piece it’s also complex. But then the plot takes a sinister turn: the husband is revealed to be a dangerous control freak who literally destroys the family. The play becomes a commentary on the most extreme variety of toxic masculinity. At this point Kelly’s careful, observant chronicling of the way a marriage between two type A personalities can implode simply melts away, because none of that matters when the husband is exposed as a psychopath. Ultimately Girls & Boys trades in humanity for ideology, drama for melodrama. God knows it gets a rise out of its audience, but the easy way – by emotional manipulation.

None of what went wrong with the play could be laid at the feet of Fiona Mongillo, however. Under Lucy Jane Atkinson’s direction she gave an extraordinary performance: precisely detailed, tonally varied and utterly convincing in every way. Her scenes with her (invisible) children were especially evocative and compelling. Mongillo was on stage alone for an hour and forty minutes without an intermission, and we were in thrall to her throughout. Girls & Boys was performed in a nearly bare area in a dilapidated schoolhouse; it’s hard to envision anything lower-tech. Yet one got the impression that no one moved or even breathed until the show was over. If you required proof that in theatre everything bows before the ineffable power of acting, this was it.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

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