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The celebrated French actor and dramatist Molière (1622-73), born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, was a comic genius. Although his irreverent comedies scandalized 17th-century French secular and religious authorities, who did their best to suppress his work, today Molière is widely regarded as the greatest writer of French comedy.
Thus, his comic masterpiece, the delightful drawing-room comedy The Misanthrope (Le Misanthrope, first performed in 1666-67), is a fitting choice for the 2004-05 season-opener for Chapel Hill, NC-based Deep Dish Theater Company. Deep Dish artistic director Paul Frellick will direct an all-star cast that includes Roman Pearah as the cynical title character, Alceste, a young idealistic and recklessly outspoken critic of the false flattery, hypocrisy, and pretenses of Paris society; Katja Hill as the conceited social butterfly Célimène, a shallow beauty whom Alceste loves; and John Murphy as Alceste's less outspoken but more sincere friend Philinte.
The stellar supporting cast includes Robert Bloomer, Nicole Farmer, Tommy Hoang, Thomas "Tekay" King, Nicole Quenelle, and Jack Prather. In addition to director Paul Frellick, the Deep Dish production team for this lively 1955 verse translation of The Misanthrope by Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. poet laureate Richard Wilbur includes set designer Christa Devitt, lighting designer Steve Dubay, costume designer Judy Chang, sound designers Deborah Coclanis and Danny Tauber, and props mistress Devra Thomas.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica, in the original production "Molière himself played the role of Alceste, a fool of a new kind, with high principles and rigid standards, yet by nature a blind critic of everybody else. Alceste is in love with Célimène (played by Molière's wife, Armande), a superb comic creation, equal to any and every occasion, the incarnate spirit of society. The structure of the play is as simple as it is poetic. Alceste storms moodily through the play, finding no 'honest' men to agree with him, always ready to see the mote in another's eye, blind to the beam in his own, as ignorant of his real nature as a Tartuffe."
"Alceste vigorously clings to his vision of an ideal society, free of hypocrisy and frivolity," writes Antay S. Bilgutay in his director's notes for the 1998 Upstart Theatre production of The Misanthrope. He adds, "[Alceste's] rebellion is at once attractive and absurd. Like 1950s teenagers swooning over James Dean, the women in the world of the play all want to be with the loner. Alceste's comic flaw, though, is that he confuses himself with the ideal. His naive (delusional?) confidence in his own perfection sets him up for catastrophic consequences in love, law and literary criticism."
Bilgutay says, "Alceste understands the irony of his love for Célimène, 'whose brittle malice and coquettish ways/so typify the manners of our days.' What he doesn't fully comprehend is how much he needs her, and the world she represents, to complete himself. For me, The Misanthrope is not a comedy about a man who hates mankind. It is a comedy about a man so in love with his idealized self that the joy of true love with another tragically escapes his grasp."
Deep Dish Theater Company presents The Misanthrope Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 26-28 and Sept. 2-4, 9-11, and 16-18, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 29 and Sept. 5 and 12, at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday, Sept. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in the space behind Branching Out at the Dillard's end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $14 ($10 students and $12 seniors), except "Cheap Dish Night," Sept. 2, when all tickets are $5. 919/968-1515. Note 1: Deep Dish's storefront theater is located in the area behind Branching Out, which is located between Cameron's and The Print Shop. Enter through Branching Out. Note 2: There will be a "Meet the Designers" discussion following the show's Aug. 29 performance. Note 3: There will be a post-play discussion following the show's Sept. 5 performance. Note 4: David Carr and Evelyn Daniel will lead the Deep Dish Book Club discussion of Mr. Sammler's Planet by 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Saul Bellow before the Sept. 16 performance. Deep Dish Theater Company: http:// www. deepdishtheater.org/ misanthrope/misanthrope%20release.html.