The Comedic Thread: A “Misanthrope”

by Bruce Turk

in Fox Fellowships

Post image for The Comedic Thread: A “Misanthrope”

(From The Misanthrope, Photo by Brigitte Enguerand)

“Editor’s note: The following posts are adapted from the Hartford Stage blog series by Bruce Turk about his experiences as a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellow.

I arrive in Paris at 6 in the morning and spend most of the day getting lost in the neighborhoods around the Republique, in the eastern part of the city. I want to see some theatre tonight. I check local listings to see what’s playing at the Odeon: “Tonight: The Misanthrope!”  It’s off to the Left Bank.

After many twistings, tanglings, wrong turns, and opposite directions, I make it to the theatre just as the final bell is ringing. I dash to the Billetiere and manage to say I am a student.  “A student of theatre?” the attendant asks dubiously. “Oui, Ecole Philippe Gaulier!” This is an open sesame. “Six Euros!” What kind of seat do I get for 8 bucks? Center orchestra, 7th row. 8 bucks for the best seat in the house. And it’s a mesmerizing production. 

LE MISANTHROPE  by Jean-Baptiste Moliere

Oronte, amant de Célimène………………………………..Cyril Bothorel

Alceste, amant de Célimène………………………………..Nicolas Bouchaud

Philinte, ami d’Alceste……………………………………….Vincent Guedon

Du Bois, valet d’Alceste………………………………………Vincent Guedon

Célimène, amante d’Alceste………………………………..Norah Krief

Éliante, cousine de Célimène………………………………Anne-Lise Heimburger

Arsinoé, amie de Célimène…………………………………Christele Tual

Acaste, marquis, prétendant de Célimène……………..Stephen Butel

Clitandre, marquis, prétendant de Célimène………….Christophe Ratandra

Basque, valet de Célimène………………………………….Christele Tual

Un garde de la maréchaussée de France………………..Cyril Bothorel

mise en scene……………………………………………………Jean-Francois Sivadier

The stage is open to the back wall. The playing area is vast, but the theatre, with three lovely golden tiers of boxes and balconies, is intimate. The stage is littered with simple chairs, a tape recorder, a big base drum, and other odds and ends. The floor is covered with what seems to be chopped up cassette tape with a greenish hue. Two actors, dimly lit, are seated far upstage against the back wall. They are calm and present, observing the audience while sipping water, etc. They will play Alceste and Philinte. After some time, the actor playing Philinte strides downstage and addresses the audience directly. He picks out one person during the speech who is continually referred to by the actors in later scenes. He gives a short lesson on double entendre and coaxes the audience to finish his rhymes. They do. The entire cast continues to do this (judiciously) throughout the evening and a few audience members always speak out. He then gives the “turn off your electronics” speech and the show begins.

Alceste & Philinte_by B Enguerand

(Alceste and Philinte, Photo by Brigitte Enguerand)

The play is presented as an argument between two men: one who actively participates in society, the other who remains aloof. This play is hailed for the titular character, but in this production we are constantly reminded of Philinte’s presence and participation in the evening’s argument. Philinte’s relationship to the audience is equally as strong as Alceste’s. In fact, every character has something to say and often moves down center or along the apron to gather the attention of audience. 

Philinte is charming. This is a key note for the playing because every performer is deeply concerned with communicating with the audience. Much of the text is directed out, with quick takes to the other actors. Sometimes this dynamic is reversed and actors address each other, but with quick check-ins to the audience. The actors are constantly registering and gauging reactions, looking for approval, and generally trying to charm us. Never is the verbal argument forgotten, and yet it is a passionate evening. It is the most present performance of a company that I can remember. All pistons are firing. The acting is spontaneous and never pushed. 

I immediately see the influence of training such as Gaulier. To a degree these are clowns, yes, but primarily they are people. They are not concerned with landing laughs; they are concerned with landing ideas. It is everything I dream of for performance: intensity, spontaneity, and vulnerability. This is coupled with a radical mise en scene and avant-garde staging. It is a subtle  melding of period and modern dress which evokes rather than mocks. There is very little that is “cute” or self-conscious in the design or the performances.      

Alceste comes forward, hits the switch on a sound control deck, and begins to dance pell-mell to “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash. He sings for himself, but is aware of the audience (though the music is much to loud for us to hear him). He throws a few chairs. He is an angry boy, a renegade, and yet this is a mature, experienced performer, easily in his late forties or early fifties. The music makes sense here because this is indeed music he must have listened to as an young man in the 80’s. It’s a brilliant choice.

           Nicolas Bouchard as Alceste_by Brigitte Enguerand    (Nicolas Bouchard as Alceste, Photo by Brigitte Enguerand)

Nicolas Bouchaud as Alceste is phenomenal: rooted, alive, present, and committed. Classical roles demand full commitment and all out playing. They tax you. They cost you. You must give up something and in return you may just draw the veil of mystery for a moment or an evening. Bouchard does this. He is a shaman in the role. He sacrifices himself and, in so doing, brings Moliere before us. He is Moliere. I see Moliere kneeling and desperately grappling Celemine to his breast. I hear him desperately arguing, pleading, with Armande Bejart. I feel his pain.                                      

I have not understood this play well until now. Tonight,  I am able I look back in time. I feel the warm breath of Moliere echoing through the theatre, beckoning to me. I am transported backward and at the same time the play is brought forward. It is a timeless sensation.

I am beginning to understand the difficulties of my “style” question and the huge demand this material places upon the artist. Is there a “style” for Moliere? We can be taught how to articulate, how to carry ourselves, how to present the text–these skills are necessary. We may be able to access the passion and heat within the characters–this, too, is desirable. Yet the work is meaningless without the desperate need to communicate with the audience. Ultimately, the question is not what is the style of the period, but how do we passionately communicate the idea. There is brilliant language and an out-pouring of emotion that fully engages the body. The presentation can be beautiful, especially with Arsinoe and Orante in this production, but the text is not proclaimed. The actors wring the language out of their bodies. They communicate with passion and total commitment.

Style and clarity of thought does not mean intellectualizing the role or distancing oneself from the concerns of the character and his or her desperate need to be understood. 

The play is well received. The laughter, which comes with couplets and knowing glances from the actors, is a gentle, knowing hum. This is a wise, attentive, and appreciative audience. The solid applause continues for 2, 3, 4 calls, and then breaks into a rhythmic clap for calls 5, 6, 7, and 8.

A brilliant night.

Bruce Turk_headshotBruce Turk has performed On and Off Broadway, internationally, and at major regional theatres across the country. He spent four years in Japan, where he trained and performed regularly as a resident member of Tadashi Suzuki’s Acting Company in Tokyo, Mito, and Togamura. He has worked extensively with Julie Taymor, appearing in her productions of Titus Andronicus, Juan Darien (at Lincoln Center), and playing the title role in The Green Bird. Other New York credits include Faust, King John, and Pericles (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). His regional credits include seasons and productions at the Goodman Theatre, McCarter Theatre, Seattle Repertory, the Denver Center, Cincinnati Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, The Shakespeare Theatres in D.C. and New Jersey, Shakespeare Santa Cruz and many more. San Diego audiences have seen his work in six seasons of the Shakespeare Repertory at the Old Globe Theatre, where his many roles have included the Fool, Grumio, Aguecheek, Ford, Parolles, Claudius, Antipholus, and Leontes, for which he received the San Diego Critics’ Craig Noel Award for Excellence in Theatre. Most recently, he played Malvolio for Hartford Stage. His television and film credits include NUMB3RS, ER, Third Watch, Garmento, and Midnight Spin. He has conducted workshops and given Master Classes at Columbia University, UC Santa Cruz, University of Michigan, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, The Old Globe Theatre, and Cal State Long Beach, where he has also directed. He received the 2012 Fox Fellowship for Distinguished Achievement and is a graduate of Northwestern University.

The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.