Saturday, July 16, 2011

Friday Night in Park Slope: Piper Theatre presents "The Miser" outdoors at the Old Stone House

Tonight in Park Slope, we saw a phenomenal and extraordinarily professional production of Molière's The Miser put on by the Piper Theatre outside the Old Stone House. Cleverly adapted and directed by Welker White, this was a remarkably funny and relevant version of this classic farce, updating the satiric comedy to the 21st century.

We see a lot of outdoor theater in parks around the city (avoiding the big productions at Central Park's Delacorte Theatre, which we know are great, due to our allergy to waiting on line). Most have to begin early because they have no artificial lighting and you want the audience to be able to see the action. The Piper Theatre's high production values gave them the advantage of professional lighting, so tonight's performance didn't begin until after 8:30 p.m. (making our dumbphone camera kind of useless).

The lighting was only one example of the top-notch production values on display tonight: a highly effective sound system, a real inside-theater set, and the effect of watching a play indoors. While this takes away some of the fun of having the action going around all around you, it's closer to the experience of being in a real theater.

Welker White, the director, has worked as a film, stage and TV actress with some of the top directors and although she only last year received her MFA in Directing from Brooklyn College, we're pretty sure this belated academic credential was didn't mean she could have taught some of the graduate courses she'd taken at BC. Tonight's production was evidence that she's already an experienced and accomplished director.

Particularly brilliant was her choice, in adapting Molière, to combine both contemporary elements (Clèante's iPod and addiction to fashion blogs are just two examples) and those from the play's 1668 debut (when the playwright himself played the title character, Harpagon) -- and then adding just a soupçon of funny fourth-wall-breaking references, like Harpagon's inveighing against the noisy gangsta teens in the playground and the pampered Park Slope tots "and their lesbian mothers." If it sounds like it wouldn't cohere, you're wrong: everything worked perfectly in this well-oiled machine.

Which is not to say that the play felt slick. Still, this felt like one of the few outdoor plays we've seen that was seamlessly ready for prime-time. For one thing, the lead actor, Damian Young (Harpagon), was utterly in control all the time. The role is a tricky one; despite his almost inhuman greed and utter disregard for the feelings of his son and daughter, much less anyone else, he's got to appear simultaneously a ridiculous buffoon, an instrument of real (if banal) evil, and at least somewhat sympathetic, if not endearing. In his modulated virtuoso performance, Young strikes all the right notes.

He's helped by a very strong supporting cast, especially stage veteran Jan Leslie Harding as Frosine, the matchmaker -- here played as a combination of the unctuous real estate broker and the kind of artsy older woman who puts a pencil in her hairbun -- who serves as Harpagon's foil, enabler, ally and manipulator. The unfortunate kids of the miser who are being kept from their true loves by his plans for mercenary marriages for the entire family are played with wonderful flair by Todd C. Bartels as the trend-obsessed Clèante and Hannah Jane McMurray as the hapless, romantic Elise.

David Bachman probably gets the most laughs as LaFleche and especially as Jacques, the miser's coachman cum cook. With the exaggerated French accent of a children's cartoon character, he is such an adept physical comedian that he comes close to stealing his scenes. But the other actors do manage to match him, and the laughs keep coming quickly, the key to a high-functioning farce.

But all the actors here were memorable: Gilbert Cruz as both Simon and a comic-"Law and Order" style police commissioner; Zac Hoogendyk as an earnest yet sarcastic Valere; Alice Winslow as the sweet but distracted Mariane; Tom Tammi as a hearty and jovial Anselme, and the younger actors playing the miser's put-upon, despondent, passive-aggressive servants.

The Piper Theatre production of The Miser is not just a highly entertaining, very funny farce, but it also kept us thinking about our present economic situation, like the line that asks who's worse: the borrowers who take out enormous loans they can't possibly pay back or the greedy lenders who give them the money with the complete awareness that these people will default?

In the end, the old curmudgeonly miser here and his children and their loves and everyone else get a joyously happy ending, made more even upbeat by the cast's boisterous final musical number. If only the greed of the past decades would end so happily! We're grateful to the Piper Theatre and the Old Stone House for giving us this wonderful evening in the theater.

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