Some theatres have terrific productions in awful theatres. Other theatres nest in stunning historic settings but can't produce anything worth watching. The Theatre at Monmouth, the Shakespearean Theatre of Maine, seems to enjoy both worlds; the ability to create engaging theatre that people want to see in a 97 year-old Victorian opera house that people flock to. Now in their 28th season, Theatre at Monmouth maintains an enviable repertory of plays under a canopy of cherubic frescoes, beautiful carvings and hand-moulded plasterwork from another century. Yes, this theatre has a lot going for it.
Miles Malleson's adaptation of Moliere's THE MISER, originally written in 1668, is quick and straight-forward, trading in most vestiges of rhymed verse for sheer comedy and running a lean two hours. The first image we see is the miser himself, Harpagon, literally digging a dirt hole and burying a chest of gold. This is such a perfect beginning image, yet a moment not included in other more orthadox productions I have seen. I knew right away this production had a lot going for it too.
Director Robert Walsh masterfully moves the simple plot along with immediacy and skill, keeping the action whirring, spinning, and jumping. The dizzing pace itself seems to be a character in the play. The cast is consistently and constantly blessed with the two very things that are the tricks to such classic comedys: impeccable timing and boundless energy.
Joshua Scharback and David Harbour as the two young suitors, though obviously tired and strained of voice, tear through their scenes with skill and hilarious timing. Harbour is a large force on stage, equally adept with physical and verbal humor. Dana Claire Gotlieb as Mariane is hilarious with her pouty face and batty eyes. Gotlieb has a unique way of looking attractive and comically buffoonish almost simultaneously. With a sense of timing as sharp as any, Gotlieb's Mariane uses her enviable vocal range and capable physical attack to get what she wants and fend off what she doesn't. In a series of whizzing and turning comic moves, director Walsh uses Gotlieb and the other lovers with such precision as if to set the stage in wild motion almost to the point of crashing.
The cornerstone of the play, however, was Michael O'Brien in the title role. O'Brien above all is a keen listener, which while it might not seem immediately important to the audience, is crucial in the performance of such a celebrated curmudgeon. O'Brien's sense of timing and connection with the other actors around him is masterful to witness. Rodent-like and squinty-eyed, O'Brien owns the stage, weilding and pounding with his cane as if it were an extension of his mean arm. With a wonderful repoire with the audience, this Harpagon's lietmotif is a unique vocal sound, a scowl, like an animal backed ito a corner; this kind of growl is surely nothing of Moliere's, only the brilliant invention of Mr. O'Brien.
Charles Weistein's cook, driver, and all-around dogsbody servant Jacques is another example of skillful and deliberate comic acting. Weinstein is big-eyed, sarcastic, and quick; he is a formidable comic whirl-wind in motion. Other characters are well worth mention; Joan Jubett's pale Elise, Chloe Leamon's manipulative Frosine, James Bodge's effete Anselm, even the duo of haphazard servants Geoffrey Molloy and Ryan McCarthy.
In a season where summer theatres choose sophomoric and silly plays for their tourist audiences, thinking of course that only fluffy fare can satisfy such people, it is refreshing to see the classics played with such success. Amazingly Monmouth's MISER rus in rotating rep until August 30 with HAMLET, SHADOWLANDS, and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Plainly, I have not seen an audience laugh this hard for a very long time, and for that reason alone lesser summer theatre companies should take note.