Editors' pick

The Miser

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Editorial Review

A 'Miser' generous with laughs

By Celia Wren
Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010

Keep the editors of Real Simple magazine away from Washington Shakespeare Company's "The Miser." Director Akiva Fox has devised an eloquently cluttered environmental staging for this funny, if sometimes irritating, production, and the aesthetic might cause fits among organized-household zealots.

As ticket holders mill in the Clark Street Playhouse lobby before the show, a hustler figure in a black watch cap (Sara Barker) accosts them. With assurances that they're sneaking into a rich guy's house, she leads the audience through a small door into a passage crammed with junk.

Drained Coke bottles. Empty packing boxes. A decrepit bike and vacuum cleaner. When theatergoers emerge into the seating area, they find it no tidier. Piles of books, stacked picture frames, old pill vials, takeout coffee containers and other testaments to hoarding litter the set (the nifty design is by Tobias Harding). Chandeliers with burned-out bulbs dangle overhead. At the rear, behind a pink sofa, the broken panes on three grimy windows have been patched with cardboard and tape.

You could hardly have a more telling introduction to Harpagon (Ian Armstrong), the eponymous cheapskate of Molire's 1668 comedy, performed here in a saucy adaptation by David Ball. Over the course of 100 intermissionless minutes, we watch Harpagon's penny-pinching threaten misery to his son Cleante (Rex Daugherty), daughter Elise (Katie Atkinson), steward Valere (Joshua Drew) and others -- until the quick-witted valet, La Fleche (as Barker's character is named, we learn), and some lucky coincidences save the day.

Fox (who is literary associate for the Shakespeare Theatre Company) has encouraged his actors to adopt a strenuously stylized comic physicality. Characters fling their arms around in exaggerated gestures, arch their heads and torsos back in shock, wiggle their hips seductively, tumble farcically over the sofa and so on. The impulse seems apt -- Molire was, after all, influenced by commedia dell'arte, with its clowning tradition. But the body language in this production sometimes strays from stylization to fidgetiness (a few balancing moments of stillness might help), while the amped-up facial expressions can verge on mugging.

But there's a lot to laugh at, too, particularly in Ball's witty, modern, cheerfully vulgar dialogue, abounding in slang terms and curses unsuitable for quotation in a family newspaper. "May you poop out your heart in the middle of the night in an ice-cold privy!" is one of the milder exclamations, uttered by the amiable matchmaker and wheeler-dealer Frosine (a resplendently brassy Heather Haney).

Over-the-top tics aside, the acting can be energetic and well defined. Armstrong's shambling, greasy-haired Harpagon, in his dirty khakis and suspenders (Jessi Cole Jackson designed the expressive costumes) is both villainous and absurd. (Molire himself shouldered this role in the play's premiere.) Exuding hip-teenager bravura, Daugherty displays some nice comic timing as Cleante, and Joe Palka is appealingly self-possessed as the wealthy Anselme. The most entertaining performance comes from Frank Britton, who plays the cook and coachman Jacques with a deadpan manner that's especially wry amid all the hamming.

The production boasts some darker touches, too. For instance, in an effective dream sequence, Harpagon -- panicking about his missing money box -- imagines being buried alive. His kids show up in mad-surgeon attire. Nightmare figures with masks cut from giant $5 and $100 bills cavort around him. The scene is sobering -- suitably enough. In 2010, when economic angst dominates the headlines, a production with fiscal themes can't be simply fluff.

By Moliere, adapted by David Ball. Directed by Akiva Fox; lighting design, Eric Watkins; props design, Jessica Rietzler. With Rachel Beauregard. 1 hour 40 minutes.