Performed briskly, without intermission, the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance’s highly entertaining season-opener, The Miser, barely runs 90 minutes. But StreetSigns associate artist Elisabeth Lewis Corley’s delightful new translation and condensation of the 17th century French comedy The Miser (L’Avare) by Molière (1622-73) is a nifty 90 minutes of smart and witty staging by Corley’s husband, StreetSigns’ co-artistic director Joseph Megel, and crackerjack comic characterizations by an all-star cast led by Triangle theater legend Jordan Smith.
Fully at home in the curmudgeonly the title role, Smith plays the money-mad Harpagon as a miser’s miser, a skinflint extraordinaire consumed by avarice. (To borrow a phrase once applied to a legendary 20th century tightwad, Harpagon throws nickels around like they are manhole covers.)
Harpagon is the biggest penny-pincher in Western Literature until English novelist created Ebenezer Scrooge in 1843, and Smith captures his all-consuming greed superbly. More attached to his precious cashbox, and the 30,000 Francs therein, than to family or friends, Harpagon is more than willing to sacrifice the happiness of his son Cleante (Chris Chiron) and daughter Elise (Sarah Kocz) — if there is a profit in it for him in arranging their marriages, however unsuitable and undesirable their potential mates may be.
Chris Chiron is very funny as the foppish Cleante, a dandified dude living well beyond his meager means; and Sarah Kocz is charming as Elise, secretly in love with her servant Valere (Stephen Laferriere), a gentleman in disguise so he can court his lady love without incurring the wrath of her father.
Kocz, who also plays Master Jacques, Harpagon’s conniving cook and coachman, with brio, finds a perfect comic foil in Laferriere. Mariette Booth likewise does double duty — and does it delightfully — in playing Cleante’s beloved, the beautiful but poor Mariane, as well as Cleante’s somewhat cloddish but devoted servant Arrow.
Sharlene Thomas is a real treat in the dual roles of Frosine the matchmaker, whom Harpagon hires to marry off his children in ways most advantageous to his bottom line, and The Commissioner, a notary public summoned to investigate the tragic disappearance of Harpagon’s beloved cashbox. And Gabriel Graetz makes the most of his cameo roles as the Harpagon’s much-abused servant Stockfish and the miser’s mysterious foreign business associate Anselme.
The delectable comic soufflé whipped up by director Joseph Megel, assistant director Chris Chiron, and fight choreographer Stephen Laferriere is a veritable feast of fun. Scenic designer Rob Hamilton’s clever sets feature a circular sofa backed by three large revolving panels decorated with flowered wallpaper to serve as doors for this fast-paced production. Costume designer James Cuthrell dresses the cast in a colorful wardrobe that combines both 17th century and contemporary influences, and the considerable contributions of lighting designer Roberta Wolfe and sound designer Nicholas Graetz also enhance the production.
Original music by musical director Sarah Kocz, Tad Dreis, and Nicholas Graetz and lyrics by Elisabeth Lewis Corley provide a nice complement to the marvelous comedy, which unfolds at a gallop in Studio 6 Theater in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance presents The Miser Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 8-10 and 15-17, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 11 and 18, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Studio 6 Theater in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $12 on Thursdays and Sundays and $14 on Fridays and Saturdays, with Student Rush, senior discounts, and group rates available. Note: There will also be a pay-what-you-can preview at 8 p.m. Sept. 2nd. 919/843-3865. StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance: http://www.streetsigns.org/ [inactive 10/08]. Molière: http://www.site-moliere.com/intro.htm [inactive 6/07].
On Sept. 3rd, the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance will open its 2005-06 season with The Miser, StreetSigns associate artist Elisabeth Lewis Corley’s new and improved translation and adaptation of the 1669 comedy L’Avare by celebrated 17th century French playwright Molière (1622-73). The Miser, produced in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of Communication Studies, will continue Thursday-Sunday, through Sept. 18th, in Studio 6 Theater in Swain Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill. (Note: There will also be a pay-what-you-can preview at 8 p.m. Sept. 2nd.)
Originally commissioned by 7Stages theater in Atlanta, and initially produced there in 1980, Corley’s translation of The Miser has undergone quite an evolution in the ensuring quarter-century.
“A small, storefront theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, 7Stages, then and now (but now in a bigger space) run by Del Hamilton and Faye Allen, was, in its first season, determined to produce The Miser,” Corley recalls. “When I asked Del Hamilton whose translation he was going to use, he said, ‘Well, yours.’ The only problem was, I had never translated that or any other play; and they were scheduled to start rehearsals in four weeks.”
Corley adds, “All Del knew was that I spoke French, had published poetry and some translations of poetry, and was the artistic director of a Shakespeare company. The rest he took on faith. So, I took from my shelves a copy of the play in French and my Petit Larousse and translated the play on the gad for a production on its way up. I thought both Shakespeare and Molière would have understood that perfectly.”
The Miser, Corley explains, is a “treatment of the absolutely absurdity of placing money as the primary value.” She says the current 90-minute translation and adaptation has never been produced.
“The original translation was word-for-word faithful and very long,” Corley explains. “It was very well received by both critics and audiences. I think it held the box office record for the theater until they moved into their current home and could seat more people.”
Corley notes, “The [initial] translation was done sometime around 1980. The adaptation for the ingénue women to double as the character men, and major cutting, was done nearly 10 years ago. And I have continued to work on the script for this production, including adding a song for the end.”
Elisabeth Corley’s husband, StreetSigns’ co-artistic director Joseph Megel, will direct an all-star cast that includes StreetSigns associate artists Jordan Smith, Sarah Kocz, and Chris Chiron, plus Mariette Booth, Gabriel Graetz, Stephen Laferriere, and Sharlene Thomas. Laferriere, who will be making his StreetSigns and Triangle debut, is the National Winner of the 2005 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Irene Ryan Scholarship. Megel previously directed Dream Boy and Shakespeare’s R&J for StreetSigns and Nixon’s Nixon for Manbites Dog Theater of Durham.
“I can’t think of a better time to revisit a piece that makes biting comedy out of the delusions of a man who believes that money is the most important value in life and who is comfortable justifying his every action in terms of its impact on the bottom line,” Megel says in preshow publicity. “There was a time when we made fun of people who forgot that money is not the only or even the most important value. Today, they run multinational corporations, get elected to public office, and make vast sums of money from outsourced support services, siphoning off unspeakable profits from the horrors of war.”
Megel told the Triangle Theater Review, “It had been years since I read Molière when I read Elisabeth’s translation/adaptation, which I read a few years ago and which I have been trying to find a production for ever since. I have never directed this play before, although not for lack of trying. No fewer than three other theaters have put this play in their seasons and then lost funding. We think it is the curse of The Miser.”
He adds, “I always respond to plays that are on about something important, but do their work through story. This play makes me laugh. It has a sweet spirit and an utter lack of tolerance for misplaced values. I have also wanted to do something with this kind of physical comedy. It is extremely challenging for directors and actors. It takes training and skill and commitment and precision. And I love watching all that work come into focus and making people laugh.”
When the curtain rises, Joseph Megel says, “A miserly gentleman, Harpagon (Jordan Smith) — with a son, Cleante (Chris Chiron), and a daughter, Elise (Sarah Kocz), of marriageable age — decides to marry off his children and himself to best please himself and his cashbox. His choice falls upon a beautiful young woman, Mariane (Mariette Booth), beloved of his son. Complicating the issue are four servants: Valere (Stephen Laferriere), a gentleman in disguise; Master Jaques (Sarah Kocz), struggling to juggle his duties as cook and coachman; one about to be fired (Mariette Booth); and Stockfish (Gabriel Graetz), who sweeps. A matchmaker, Frosine (Sharlene Thomas), meddles, with predictably disastrous consequences.”
In addition to director Joseph Megel and dramatist Elisabeth Lewis Corley, the show’s creative team includes assistant director Chris Chiron, musical director Sarah Kocz, fight choreographer Stephen Laferriere, set designer Rob Hamilton, lighting designer Roberta Wolfe, costume designer James Cuthrell, sound designer Nicholas Graetz, properties master Ray Dickie, and stage manager Chris Duncan. The Miser also features original music by Sarah Kocz, Tad Dreis, and Nicholas Graetz, with lyrics by Elisabeth Lewis Corley.
“Having the actresses who play the young maidens double as the character male servants was a challenge for all of us,” declares Joseph Megel, “especially the costumer (James Cuthrell). And the play involves precise, elaborate language, and physical comedy. Everything has to work perfectly. Rob Hamilton’s set helps us keep things moving with three huge revolving doors and a poof.”
StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance presents The Miser Friday-Saturday, Sept. 3-4, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 4, at 2 and 7 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 8-10 and 15-17, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 11 and 18, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Studio 6 Theater in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $12 on Thursdays and Sundays and $14 on Fridays and Saturdays, with Student Rush, senior discounts, and group rates available. Note: There will also be a pay-what-you-can preview at 8 p.m. Sept. 2nd. 919/843-3865. StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance: http://www.streetsigns.org/ [inactive 10/08]. Molière: http://www.site-moliere.com/intro.htm [inactive 6/07].