Written by Molière
Translated by Tony Harrison
Directed by Johanna Schall
Dressed by Jenny Schall
Produced by the Red Light District in association with Mirvish Productions
Runs April 3-26 @ The Drake Hotel
By Jen Handley
Taking your ticket from an usher in clownish makeup and bracing yourself for a night of rhyming satire circa 1666, the last thing you’re expecting to be hit with is “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
But, during the ludicrously tender prologue of Red Light District’s The Misanthrope, in which enraptured lovers repeat to each other the words of Cyndi Lauper’s most famous observation, we get to share a laugh at how silly and stylized is the devil we know, before tucking into Molière. And the surreal mash-up of antique humour and contemporary culture that follows is, well, fun.
In the plush and shiny basement of the Drake Hotel on Queen West, the audience sits around two intersecting aisles, where most of the action takes place. The actors, each clad by Jenny Schall in a neon combination of old and new fashion — like a knee-length jacket over a hoodie, or a bustle with an acrylic belt — look less like refugees from the sixteenth century than the most dedicated vintage fashionistas on the face of the earth. (And they had some worthy competitors in the bar upstairs.)
The play is about a man, Alceste, who is fed up with the fact that not only are people mean, but they pretend to be nice. Ruthless honesty is the only way to fight their system. His friend Philinte points out that you might as well accept people as they are and coddle them with affirmation, because monkeys will do “what monkeys do,” but the argument gets complicated when it becomes evident that — in this clique — sex, like small talk, is an obligatory social chore.
Disco and pop tracks underlay most of the scenes, so it feels as though at any moment Alceste’s rant about mean girls or his girlfriend’s retort might get sucked into the remix. Translator Tony Harrison’s rhyming couplets contemporize Molière’s social commentary with all the predictability and stuffiness of a rap battle. (Guess how he rhymes “deconstruct it”.)
But politeness holds back the patter and makes the experience feel less like 8 Mile than an LSD voyage captained by Gilbert & Sullivan. Each conversation passes by like a song, with its own rhythmic and emotional atmosphere, and the performances are suitably operatic. But the sobbing, stuttering, and all that fake guffawing the actors lay down isn’t exaggeration, it’s vocal instrumentation. The dialogue’s delivery is literally danceable; the performers never lose their physical connection to the words being spoken. Bits like a split-second involuntary collapse at the mention of a girl’s name or a combination ass-grab/face-smack/handshake play less like running gags than ill moves.
And, of course, any contemporary relationship story would not be complete without the encroachment of technology. The most weirdly surreal scene — where characters choose to witness a tender moment not through tears, but through their camera phones — isn’t unfamiliar at all.
Underneath all the colours, music, and cultural in-jokes, it’s sexual tension, and the tension between lies and honesty, that hold the play together. But the question about whether a compromised opinion means more than a compromised relationship is up for grabs.