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Natalie More, Steven Epp and Nathan Keepers in "The Miser" at ARTTerminal Skinflint
By Bill Marx

The Miser

By Moliere
American Repertory Theatre
64 Brattle St.
Cambridge, MA
Box office: (617) 547-8300



In Moliere's tragicomic ode to greed, Steven Epp plays the miser as a whirling dervish of constipation, a portrait of terminal skinflintery that, at times, becomes exhausting. The paradox is representative of the American Repertory Theatre/Theatre de la Jeune Lune co-production. At times, the evening is too much: too wham-bam, too obvious, too slow. After all, the farce is the portrait of a man who gives too little. But it is easy to forgive (or at least tolerate) the excess because director Dominique Serrand, adaptor David Ball, and the cast bring so much zesty comic invention to the proceedings, including Theatre de la Jeune Lune's celebrated flair for physical humor that extends from absurdist pratfalls to linguistic acrobatics.

Epp's Harpagon manifests greed in all of its forms, physical and spiritual, a crass entropy that distributes money, kindness, food, and understanding out of an eyedropper. But the performer withholds normal generosity with dazzling hysterical energy, roaring out his disapproval of overfeeding his guests, flicking out his tongue like an overheated lizard, searching every inch of servants he thinks are stealing, holding onto his words as if he didn't want to let them leave his mouth because they are free. Wearing white shmattes, his thin body often as akimbo as his hair, supplying funny voices and faces worthy of Jerry Lewis on crack, as nimble as he is mean-spirited, Epp's aging tightwad is a memorable grotesque, inhuman because he can give away nothing but misanthropy.

Epp's egomaniacal monomaniac drives the production, but he gets plenty of amusing support, especially from Ball's rambunctious adaptation, which peppers the script with references to the ancient Greek thinker Testicles and hilarious oaths, from "Christ on a bicycle!" to speculation about what, if anything, wafts out of the puckered ass of a dead chicken. Occasionally, Ball's playfulness stoops for easy laughs. Why does Harpagon's reluctant intended, the young Mariane, who is in love with the miser's son, Cleante, talk as if she has barely mastered grammar? Still, the script is filled with bursts of refreshing verbal fisticuffs, the exaggerated language a contrast to the parsimoniousness of the cheapskate.

Serrand's deliberate, sometimes frustratingly slow-mo pace gives way on occasion to longueurs, especially when the physical comedy flags. At the same time, the relaxed rhythms of the staging presents the cast members, some from Theatre de la Jeune Lune, others from the ART, with opportunities to embellish their characters with tidbits of fresh comic detail. Karen MacDonald shows off her impressive chops as a farceur in the role of the scrappy matchmaker. As the wily and frenetic Frosine, MacDonald is a worthy foil for Epp in their scenes together.

Other supporting performers are fine, though less consistent. Remo Airaldi scores early on as the mumbling servant who is both the miser's cook and stable master, but, because he depends on a small number of behavioral tics, he eventually wears out his welcome. Will LeBow is too old for the part of Valere, who is in love with the miser's daughter, Elise, but he has moments when his booming voice delivers the one-liner goods. Sarah Agnew, as Elise, puts some unexpected backbone into the character's romantic ditziness. Natalie Moore is adequate as the easily stimulated Marianne.

Riccardo Hernandez's set -- an impressively decayed and emptied-out mansion, a plastic sheet stretched over a massive hole in the ceiling -- doesn't overwhelm the performers. It serves as an aptly decadent frame for the action. Some of Serrand's surreal ideas are delectable, such as a slot in the bathroom wall for toilet paper (shred newspaper) to be pushed through, and a novel way for Harpagon to collect his bath water. Freud equated money and offal; the production explores this satiric take on materialism with gusto.

This Miser is generally funny and/or fascinating enough, though it runs out of the steam by the end. Even Harpagon begins to nod off during the final scenes. And the appearance of a coffin is a mistake. Perhaps Serrand was driven to underline, yet again, his vision of the play's tragic undercurrents. Harpagon is not simply socially isolated; he shrivels into nothingness. Or is it the director's utopian wish fulfillment? Whatever the reason, Serrand suggests that the tightfisted monster is heading for the last roundup. Moliere's conclusion is far more frightening: greed is immortal.

[This review was first published on]


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