"The Miser" may be the classic study of a skinflint, but the only penny-pinching you'll encounter at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, where Molie re's comedy opened last night, is practiced by Harpagon, the title character.
Otherwise, this is a rich production, directed with an abundance of imagination by John Going and filled with felicitous performances. It can even be said that Harpagon himself, clutching the air at the mere mention of "money" as if he wanted to pocket the very word, is bountifully tightfisted.
He is played by John Wylie, who is giving one of his best performances in his tenure at the Shakespeare Theatre. Looking rather like a medieval monk covered with tallow drippings, he is clearly gravity's plaything. His mouth naturally droops. His shoulders slump. The bags under his squinty little eyes qualify as hammocks. Even his stringy hair seems to be frowning. This Harpagon is ready for the grave, and indeed, when he learns that he has been robbed of his precious treasure chest, he rapidly expires on the spot.
What resurrects him just as speedily is the thought that the culprit must be brought to justice, even if that means hanging every member of his beleaguered family and all the spectators packed into the hall as well. The mere prospect of recovering his lost loot sets his nose twitching like a rabbit's. Money, you see, is more than a passion; it is an animating passion that picks him up every time and puts the spring back into his arthritic bones.
It's one thing to portray Harpagon as a wheezing wreck, collapsing into the ground. And it's another to play him as a beady little ferret, preparing to pounce. Wylie does both. He shows us both the sag and the e'lan. The thrust of the performance is upward and downward at the same time. That's a neat trick, and it makes for a particularly lively presence at the heart of a comedy that has never lacked for liveliness.
To Molie re's cast of characters, Going has added three winged demons -- living gargoyles, really -- who represent the spirit of evil that poisons Harpagon's cobwebby manse. Both playful and sinister, they help engineer the pratfalls, keep the mischief bubbling and even provide mocking sound effects. This is more than mere directorial embroidery. Harpagon is truly a man possessed.
He threatens to marry his daughter (Sybil Lines) to the first man who'll take her "without a dowry," although he demands one of the poor, dewy-eyed maiden (Marilyn Caskey) he plans to take as his own bride. When he discovers that his son (Michael Kramer) is his rival in love, he promptly disinherits him. The horses in his stable are no more than skin and hoof, and his servants are dressed in rags. Planning a dinner for 10, he counsels his cook (Floyd King) to prepare for eight, then adds, in Miles Malleson's mostly spunky translation, "Better make it seven to be on the safe side."
In short, his single-mindedness produces havoc. Much of it is the havoc inspired by the commedia dell'arte and rendered on the Folger stage with freewheeling grace by Going. But there's also a dark, corrosive side to this fable. One look at William Schroder's impressive set will tell you that. In the shreds of disintegrating fabric hanging over the house like Spanish moss, you can see the ominous outlines of great leering faces. Forever lurking under comedy's grin is the distorting grimace of pain.
"The Miser" is a play about unnatural contortions, and not just Harpagon's. The other characters are obliged to flatter, beguile, connive and generally submit to demeaning postures in order to reestablish a semblance of sanity in this household. Slapstick, in this instance, becomes a measure of the psychic imbalance under a rotting roof.
This awareness qualifies even the broadest performances and gives the production weight, although it is never weighty. In fact, far more than, say, the company's recent circus-style "Merry Wives of Windsor," this production achieves some genuine clowning. King, as the cook and coachman (one character, two hats), mixes pith and pathos masterfully. Caskey, an Arena Stage veteran, reinvents the sweet, young ingenue by giving her some smarts, albeit of the slow-dawning variety. Kramer lends masculine vigor to the role of the hotheaded son, while such familiar performers as Mikel Lambert (playing a cagey matchmaker) and Jim Beard (a swarthy moneylender) seem to have found fresh accents and comic tones under Going's guidance.
Harpagon would just as soon lock them all away, along with his possessions. (The furniture is chained to the walls, and even the pockets of his coat are padlocked.) But human beings are not as easily manipulated as a bag of coins. This satisfying production not only gives a miser his due. It also pays tribute to the emotional spendthrifts among us -- those whose purses may be empty but whose generous hearts are always overflowing.
The Miser, by Moliere. Directed by John Going. Sets and costumes, William Schroder; lighting, F. Mitchell Dana. With John Wylie, Edward Gero, Michael Tolaydo, Sybil Lines, Michael Kramer, Jim Beard, Mikel Lambert, Floyd King, Marilyn Caskey, Michael W. Howell. At the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, through May 18.