Reviews: "The Misanthrope" and "Othello" -- thoroughly modern, thoroughly not
Who says you have to be old-fashioned to be classic? Heck, who says you need to be classic to be ... classic?
Moliere wrote "The Misanthrope" 347 years ago, and it hasn't even been 20 years since the British playwright and translator Martin Crimp decided to give it an update, and even that update seems to be updated in Quintessence Theatre Group's production of Crimp's adaptation.
The mission of Quintessence, the professional theater group in Mount Airy, is the classics, and I bet that only the most grouchy of purists would argue with the stage company's choice of Crimp to represent Moliere. Quintessence's artistic director Alexander Burns stages the play in the round, and there's enough action in it to merit that effort – and enough of Moliere in it to merit its title.
Crimp, like Moliere, writes his "Misanthrope" in rhyme, clever and surprising and often worth a laugh. The 10-member cast is led smoothly by John Williams, who plays the title role – a playwright who believes rigidly in candor, and cannot countenance the way that circumstance often defines manners. Crimp has turned the other Moliere characters into Hollywood types: the playwright's girlfriend (a nuanced turn by Mattie Hawkinson) is an actress, and assorted other film types enter the fray, all watched by a friend (Daniel Fredrick, a stolidly affable presence here) who stands for civility above ceremony.
Crimp's setting for the play is a boutique hotel in London and true to the play's form, the company performs in British accents except for the Hawkinson's actress – she's an American. There's a forced feel about the proceedings at first – the opening scene, an argument about whether candor trumps manners as a philosophy of life, comes off a bit more forced than the way Moliere fashions the argument. But then the play opens into a plot that makes the declamations on both sides more believable. And in that, Crimp's modern version sits comfortably beside Moliere's original one.
The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre in Center City is on the side of Classics Straightforward -- the company's "Othello," staged by its artistic director Carmen Khan, couldn't be more true to Shakespeare's play. And here's an added bonus: Both local companies devoted to the classics are presenting them in a classical way of doing theater, in repertory with another play and with the same acting company performing in each. Quintessence is alternating its "Misanthrope" with Shaw's "Arms and the Man." The Shakespeare company rotates "Othello" with the Bard's "Much Ado About Nothing."
J Hernandez makes an outstanding Iago in the Philadelphia Shakespeare Company's "Othello," in a performance that displays many sides of the character – but mostly, of course, his creepy dishonesty and ambition. The actor Forrest McClendon, whose solid presence is immediately obvious on any stage, builds an Othello whose love for his wife (Lauren Sowa, excellent in the role) turns swiftly to hatred in a believable way. McClendon's words, in the performance I saw, were too often lost in the theater's air-conditioning noise and in his own emotional delivery, and so we were frequently left to get the gist of his meaning.
This "Othello" gets a few flourishes under Khan's direction but even her editing of the play (a good director must edit any Shakespeare play) carries a light touch and is true to the spirit Shakespeare gave a happy world that becomes dark and menacing and fueled by lies. A classic, indeed.
The Misanthrope, produced by Quintessence Theatre Group, runs through May 26 at Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Ave. It runs in repertory with Shaw's "Arms and the Man," which ends May 25. www.quintessencetheatre.org.
Othello, produced by Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, runs through May 18 at 2111 Sansom St. It runs in repertory with Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" which ends May 19. www.phillyshakespeare.org or 215-496-8001.