Forum: A Workshop in Two Acts, Lost in Translationposted on March 3rd, 2010 by Hillery Brotschol
Montclair State University’s February workshop of Sabina Berman’s Moliére illustrated the resourcefulness of both director Debbie Saivetz and the actors as they staged a large show on a small budget. The show’s visual simplicity challenged the audience to use their imaginations to re-create the world of Moliére. As a workshop, the text of the play was the main focus, thus the audience was engulfed in Moliére’s story of self-sacrifice for the sake of art.
Moliére’s semi-historically accurate plot follows famed 17th century French comedic playwright Moliére and his theatrical company through a 15 year period, from 1664 through 1679. It is during this time Moliére is introduced to the tragedian Racine, who at first admires Moliére and later betrays him. Berman does her best to illustrate the influence of Moliére’s personal life on his creations as she interweaves bits of Moliére’s plays into the script. Yet, as this play was originally written in Spanish, one cannot help wondering if something was lost in translation. The script seems confused. Is the play about rivalry, life, art, or self-sacrifice?
While some scenes are quite entertaining, such as that in Act I set in “A Comfortable Bourgeois Drawing Room” in which Moliére’s pain in the wake of Armande’s infidelity is tinged with humor, there are those which seem irrelevant to the overall progression of the storyline. Berman’s script is a collection of many lovely vignettes, but there is a certain flow which seems to be lacking, for example, one moment Racine is staging Alexander the Great, but within five minutes he is bribed by the Archbishop and is now staging Nero. Yes, period dances are entertaining, but five minutes can be shaved off of Act I if there is not a dance sequence. When a straight play is nearly three hours long, as Moliére is, it becomes extremely hard for the audience to remain focused and involved, especially with a disjointed script.
Aside from all else, Berman’s script allows the actors to create memorable characters. The entire cast of Moliére must be applauded for taking to the mannerisms of 17th century France including walking with a turnout and understanding the language of handkerchiefs and fans. Moliére is a play about actors, thus the performances of the actors were justifiably a bit like caricatures. Dustin Fontaine’s portrayal of Moliére presented to the audience a man who never lost his laughter in the face of life’s trials. He was both raucous and tender. He portrayed a very likeable Moliére, yet, he failed to convey Moliére’s age. At the time of the play, Moliére would have been in his mid-50s, yet, aside from his coughing spells, Fontaine’s Moliére seemed juvenile. While Moliére’s perpetual immaturity is mentioned in the script, it would have been more interesting to see a character physically decrepit while mentally spry and youthful. Additionally, Phil Corso created a likeable antagonist with his Racine. Corso clearly depicted a change in Racine from delusion to arrogance and final remorse. When Racine betrays Moliére one does not hate him because Corso brought humanity to the role which illustrated him, not as resentful, but as misguided. Khadijjah H. Mote portrayed a 17th century ingénue in the role of Armande. Considering Armande’s character is not well developed in Berman’s text, Mote’s straightforward portrayal was successful. Her physicality suited a young woman of the period while her portrayal of the role was endearing despite the character’s flightiness as she bounces from man to man. Moliére’s wife, Madeleine was played by Keri Costa who brought tenderness to the role as she dealt with the loss of her husband to her own daughter, but accepted it for the love of both parties and her knowledge that Moliére’s art was more important than anything else. Other memorable performances included Aaron Kaplan as King Louis XIV, who seemed to have the greatest sense for the period in his delivery and physicality, and the Archbishop played by David Marconi, who brought a touch of evil to the show as he unapologetically portrayed a despotic man of God.
In this workshop of Moliére acting was paramount, as the show’s design was simple. Costumes were black skirts, leotards, and corsets for the women and black tights and jackets for the men. Heeled shoes were ubiquitous. Some characters had individual costume pieces to distinguish them, such as King Louis and his ruffle collar and red shoes and the cross necklace for the Archbishop. Aside from a few chairs and tables which were rearranged to distinguish scene changes, there was no set. Actors remained onstage throughout the whole performance seated in two rows on either side of the stage. While scenic and lighting design were relatively simple in the workshop, the sound design was comparatively extravagant. Period pieces of music were used to establish the mood of a bygone era and to underscore the conflict of the play as a cheerful piece on the piccolo played in joyous moments while a more somber piece played in tumultuous scenes. The simplicity of every other design element allowed the music to become the main liaison between the mood of 17th century France and the modern audience.
Most importantly, the audience enjoyed Moliére. It was one of those rare shows that could make you laugh and cry at the same time. Moliére himself derived humor from pain which was illustrated in numerous scenes, most memorably in the scene on “The Rooftop of Moliere’s Theatre” in Act II where Moliére is near death, but continues to joke about his situation and even performs in his new play. The play is full of beautiful moments, but the script wants a cohesiveness and conciseness. The acting and direction of Moliére was superior, but there was something missing in the writing.
Hillery Brotschol is a freshman BFA acting major in Neil Baldwin’s Play Script Interpretation class.