Chicago Theater Review: THE MISANTHROPE (Court Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 19, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Of all Moliere’s comedies, The Misanthrope (1666), now gloriously and faithfully revived at Court Theatre, is the one literary critics and Moliere fans most take to heart. The master’s most personal and most ambiguous work, The Cantankerous Lover (its telling subtitle) delivers both a scathing attack on a superficial, gossip-Larence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Court Theatre's THE MISANTHROPE.ridden society and a searing portrait of the isolation thrust upon anyone who dares set himself against it. The title character Alceste is almost a tragic hero, relentless in his search for an honest man (and, especially, woman); he is far too willing to put his ideals before his happiness.

Though the “unfashionably sincere” Alceste (“Don’t spoil my solitude!”) despises scandalmongers, coquettes, and sycophants, he loves the beautiful Celimene, an engaging extrovert who owns all three excesses and fills Alceste with a jealous possessiveness no true misanthrope would ever admit to. His inability to trust the person he loves, along with defeat in a crucial libel suit, drives Alceste to his final desperate decision to become an anchorite in a retreat.

Larence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Court Theatre's THE MISANTHROPE.And once-proud Celimene, herself unsuccessful in her law suit, now exposed by a too-free correspondence as a double dealing flirt and rejected by her numerous suitors, is also left loveless and alone. Even more than in Tartuffe — also to be done at Court Theatre in June — a magnificently consistent Moliere refuses to compromise in The Misanthrope. In an American romantic comedy you just know that the quarrelling lovers would eventually settle with a contrived reconciliation, a big kiss, and a few empty promises. But, unbending even in a comedy, Moliere artfully imagines two mutually exclusive extremes — the isolationist purity of Alceste’s contempt for human phoniness versus the hypocrisy and insincerity of chatterbox Celimene’s socially-mediated world.

Larence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Court Theatre's THE MISANTHROPE.Moliere in effect forces us to choose the middle path of reason, as exemplified by both Philinte, his “raissonneur” friend, and Eliante, the practical lady who gives up Alceste for Philinte.

Director Charles Newell, working from Richard Wilbur’s unimprovable translation, snagged the right player for every part, enough to make a 140-minute comedy convincing from start to finish. Anchoring Moliere’s thoughtful laughter is Erik Hellman’s supple Alceste, a very attractive idealist obsessed with the false notion that only constant truth will set us free. His whiplash reactions to the fraudulence around him — most frenetic when he chastises Celimene’s sparkling slander — is as hilarious in effect as it’s serious in source (though his second-act temper tantrum goes a bit over the top). This young actor is quickly becoming the default driver for complex and charismatic parts.

Larence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Court Theatre's THE MISANTHROPE.He’s well-matched with Grace Gealey’s sultry and knowing Celimene. No 21-year-old innocent craving attention by mocking her BFFs, Gealey’s spitfire bad girl, almost clad like a 17th-century dominatrix, is the yin to Alceste’s yang: she’s seriously shallow. But, alas, never the twain can meet.

Superb character work comes from the African-American supporting cast. Caught in the crossfire are Kamal Angelo Bolden as Alceste’s sensible philosopher-friend and Patrese D. McClain as his love by default. Scathingly representing the Versailles-soaked opportunists, flatterers and backbiters are Travis Turner as a twerpy marquess, Michael Pogue as an effete fop, a glowering and rubber-faced A.C. Smith as Celimene’s pompous suitor Oronte, and, in a devastating drag turn a la Lady Bracknell, Allen Gilmore as prudish, censorious, and treacherous Arsinoe, Celimene’s worthy nemesis.

Larence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Court Theatre's THE MISANTHROPE.John Culbert’s black and gold set is echoed in Jaqueline Firkin’s elaborate costumes, full of gilded filigree embellishments, bustled court gowns, and lots of beautiful bling.

After David Ives’ insufferably ham-handed parody of this masterwork at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (the execrable The School for Lies), Newell’s pitch-perfect revival is a tonic, a balm, and an exorcism. Moliere is forever now.

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Misanthrope
Court Theatre in Chicago
scheduled to end on June 9, 2013
for tickets call 773-753-4472 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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