As Good As It Gets
Photo by Michal DanielSome—most—plays need a skip button. They take forever to get somewhere not that interesting to begin with. Then there's the occasional play you wish you could pause and rewind to re-experience something that just knocked you on your ass—a play like the Theatre de la Jeune Lune's production of Moliere's The Miser at the La Jolla Playhouse. It's as good a piece of theater on a large or small stage as any of us are likely to see this year. This French-born ensemble, which moved to Minneapolis in the 1980s, won the 2005 Tony Award for excellence in regional theater, and if everything it does is as good as The Miser, the honor is justly deserved.
The company has a notable history of infusing classical works with robust contemporary energy, and this production of perhaps Moliere's darkest play does just that. It's funny, faithful, irreverent and expertly polished without seeming stuffy or self-important. Moliere's play about an avaricious, paranoid and sickly old man—think Ebenezer Scrooge meets Tony Soprano's uncle—and the terrible lengths he goes to, including keeping his own children in financial destitution, is, along with Tartuffe, the playwright's most masterful blending of comic farce and tragedy. This production proves it.
Drawing on a variety of performance styles—from circus stilt-walkers and vaudevillian buffoonery to commedia dell'arte and cinematic slapstick—this Miser captures every note of Moliere's wicked satire of the depths one man will go to to hoard his filthy lucre. And even though the faux marble set, inspired by photos of once-stately Cuban mansions fallen into disrepair, recalls the antique and antiquated, the freshness of adapter David Ball's language, which dispenses with annoying iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets in favor of Moliere's original prose, feels wholly contemporary. So does director Dominique Serrand's frenetic style.
At the center is Stephen Epp's masterful portrayal of Harpagon, the eponymous miser. One of the greatest comic creations of the most brilliant inventor of characters in the European theatrical tradition, Harpagon is an actor's dream. Epp's voice and mannerisms capture the full range of his eccentricity and contradictions. No one should like Harpagon, but we should all want to spend time with him. Even the 90-minute first act doesn't feel an instant too long. Its length may challenge the bladder, but not the shortest of attention spans.
It's as good as theater gets—as good a reason as you need (other than over-the-counter prescription drugs in Tijuana) to drive 90 minutes south on the I-5.
THE MISER, LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE, MANDELL WEISS THEATER, LA JOLLA VILLAGE DR. AT TORREY PINES RD., LA JOLLA, (858) 550-1010. TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 & 7 P.M. THROUGH NOV. 13. $29-$75.
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