By Martin F. Kohn
The 350-year-old comedy is currently running off-Broadway and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has it on tap this summer, but whatever appeal it holds is scarcely discernible in the Hilberry Theatre’s new production.
It does look terrific, thanks to John D. Woodland’s many-textured, multi-layered costumes and Michael Wilkki’s lovely set, a white-and-gold riot of curlicues and decorative flourishes. Otherwise, though, there’s blame aplenty to go around (even in the program).
A good part of it lands squarely on Timothy Mooney’s wooden translation. Mooney is actually credited with an adaptation “based on the play by Moliere,” which lets the original playwright off the hook. Mooney retains Moliere’s iambic pentameter rhymed couplets but the rhymes generally fall into two categories, predictable or imperfect, and land with such a thud as to distract the audience and impede the actors’ attempts to speak with grace.
Well, if the lines aren’t working, there is the possibility of physical comedy, but director Jesse Merz takes only intermittent advantage of such opportunities. The title character, Alceste (Andrew Papa looking like a younger Jon Hamm in a Louis XIV wig), is smitten by the flirtatious socialite Celimene (Vanessa Sawson). She has a trio of other suitors. There would seem to be ample potential for physical funny business, but there is very little touching or expression of fervor.
Similarly, Alceste is something of a babe magnet, but here, too, potential goes unfulfilled. Only one of the women who has eyes for him, Arsinoe (Lorelei Sturm), gets comically up close and personal.
More successful is Alan Ball playing Oronte, a bad poet who asks Alceste to critique the sonnet Oronte has just written. This is a plummy role – Brian Bedford is playing it at Stratford; he’s also directing, so he had first choice – and Ball runs with it, literally. Effervescing with nervous energy while he awaits the critic’s verdict, Ball trots around flapping his arms like a demented turkey. It may not be subtle, but it’s what the production could use more of.
Finally, you’re wondering what the program could have done wrong. The actors are listed alphabetically instead of in order of appearance. Good luck telling Alceste from Acaste, or Eliante from Philinte.
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in rotating repertory through March 5. $25 – $30. 313-577-2972. http://www.hilberry.com