Though Venice Theater promised a Moliere play, the playbill for The Misermore accurately than not listed it as by adapter Timothy Mooney. The main characters and slightly rearranged and whittled plot may be traced to Moliere; but how startling to find Mooney has changed Moliere’s proseplay to a verse play! It’s of predominantly couplets in iambic pentameter, but in contemporary idiom.
Mooney’s modernization led director Murray Chase to move the action from 1668 France to New Orleans after WW II. Christopher Parrish’s courtyard set, with fountain outside the wrought iron gates of a French Quarter mansion, stresses how its owner Harpagon keeps all out of enjoying his home and adds to the mystery – and Likelihood -- of where he buries his treasure. After all the characters parade into the center to introduce themselves, and their traditional comic dance dissolves, lovers Valere (Jeremy Guerrero, playing broadly but enunciating well) and Elise (Tarah Hart, over the top, screeching) reveal their romantic predicament. The presumably orphaned survivor of a storm, he acts -- to be near her and plot their union -- as right-hand man to her father, Harpagon.
Harpagon (Neil Kasanofsky, in every sense the star here) orders Elise to marry much older -- but very wealthy -- Anselme (calm Lee Hakeem), who won’t ask for a dowry. Harpagon himself seeks to wed much younger but very poor Mariane. Despite dealings with matchmaker Frosine (Joanna Fontane, a real pro), he’s in for rejection. Why? His son Cleante (likeable Hunter Cross) and Mariane (clowning Arianna DeCecco) are in love.
Working out the lovers’ dilemmas involves those who relate to them and Valere’s identity. Some are servants or between-scenes comic fill-ins, like a drunk, and also figure (as does Ljubica Nikolic’s venal LaMerluche) in the main plot of Harpagon trying to save his treasure and add to it. Much of the fun evolves from his attempts at frugality, like having a meal for 8 serve 12 guests.
Director Chase inserts plenty of visual humor, from Mariane’s eyeglasses’ exaggerated rims and pigeon-toed walk to a corner that’s lit up with an accompanying musical flourish from which Valere receives strikes of love or related inspirations.
Blustery Kasanofsky’s Harpagon is blatantly funny, whereas Fontane’s Frosine -- reminiscent of a youngish Ruth Gordon -- elicits humor from sly manners and remarks.
Still, this Miser disappoints. Sight gags don’t equal the juiciness of Moliere’s satire, much of which depends on his language. From the start, there’s so much moving around and talking at a high pitch that dialogued details get lost. Info about an important loan, for instance, isn’t too clear. Elise’s voice is so grating that it turns one off to what she says.
To change prose into poetry courts disaster, not avoided here. A couple I met outside the theater admitted being “turned off by that Shakespeare language, that iambic pentamenter.” And to think that if Moliere had indeed written The Miser in poetic form, that would have been of Alexandrines, that is, couplets of 12 (not 10) lines with strong stresses on the middle and last syllables. Less apt to promote singy-songy delivery! (Fact is: education and practice in speaking poetry well is woefully lacking today. Community theaters are unlikely to find relevant talent, with the possible exception of older actors (such as Kasanofsky and Fontane), who are often experienced in speaking rarer-today classic texts. The lack can’t be covered up by movement, scenic effects, or various theatrical tricks.) The pity here is that the sting of a satire on excessive greed is hardly felt. One would think this comedy has no bearing on life today.