If the descriptors “classic” or “spoken in verse” usually scare you away from the atre, fear not. Michigan State University Department of Theatre’s current production of “The Misanthrope” sounds more like songs from “Hamilton: An American Musical” than a sonnet from Shakespeare. Adapted by Constance Congdon from a translation by Virginia Scott and directed by Dan Smith, Molière’s comedy of manners set in 17th century France is a timeless commentary on 20th century America.
Alceste (Matt Greenbaum) is the misanthrope, a French aristocrat and evangelist for unvarnished honesty. By the end of the show, Alceste loses his girlfriend, stands trial for insulting a nobleman’s poem and ultimately exiles himself from “polite” society. It’s a brutal ending to a show that’s also brutally frank and funny.
Like Lin Manuel’s Hamilton, Greenbaum’s Alceste is a brilliant and charismatic man who seems like a terrible person to know. As the only character without a wig or elegantly styled hair, Greenbaum physically stands out from his peers as much as he alienates them through his words. In the opening scene, he debates with friend Philinte (Greg Hunter) about the supposed value or worthlessness of lying as politeness to maintain social civility. As the two master’s students in the production, Greenbaum and Hunter are an excellent match, pinging witticisms and philosophical arguments at each other like tennis masters. Given their diction and pacing, their debate is both interesting and beautiful to listen to.
Greenbaum also matches wits and sexual chemistry with his suitor Célimène (Janette Angelini) and Éliante (Brooke Bastianelli) as Philinte’s love interest. With each, Greenbaum shows Alceste’s shattering vulnerability as a naïve boy unable to comprehend the contradictions of love and courtship. Both Angelini and Bastianelli display an inner strength that perfectly counters Alceste’s inner weakness.
Easily, the most entertaining exchanges occur between Célimène and Arsinoé (Katelyn Hodge) as a rival for Alceste’s affections.
Like a rap battle without the back beat, Angelini and Hodge throw down with seething barbs, using the restraint required of their polite world as a passive-aggressive channel of eloquent fury. The gist of the argument is two women calling each other ugly liars and sluts but with an avalanche of mic-drop worthy digs like “Do only dogs come when you call?” It’s epic shade-throwing that eclipses any other female-centered feud.
The rest of the cast, including Shane Bruno, Evan Phillips and Peter James Florian as fellow suitors, all elevate the show by playing into the flamboyant and vain personalities of their respective characters while maintaining the steady pace of the show. Florian is especially great as the thin-skinned nobleman Oronte who writes the offending poem. Oronte says he seeks Alceste’s honest opinion when he really wants glowing praise for his half-assed attempt. Like a Facebook wall with pretty pictures, Florian’s placid face masks a sad and desperate person who thrives in a world of false niceties but crumbles under real criticism.
The scenic design by Heather Brown, costume design by Violet Jones and hair and makeup design by Mallory Maxton combine to create the shiny, Rococo world of 17th century French aristocracy without disrupting the flow. Brown’s scenic design keeps the audience-surrounded Arena Theatre ornate but open for the actors to glide around. And Jones’ costumes make strategic use of color to distinguish the characters for the audience while adding shiny layers to highlight their regality.
“The Misanthrope” is a comedy that provides perspective more than escape. Alceste leaving heartbroken and in exile is not exactly a happy ending. But it also poses a challenge for audiences in our present moment: It asks them to respond to their own challenges. It’s also an extremely polished and quotable production that will make fans of its audience.
“The Misanthrope” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15 & Thursday, Nov. 16; 8:00 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17 & Saturday, Nov. 18 TBD (Pending Football Game); 2:00 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19; $15 general admission, $10 MSU students Arena Theatre, 542 Auditorium Road, MSU campus, East Lansing (800) WHARTON, whartoncenter.com