The title’s a misnomer. Alceste is no misanthrope. Not in this Seahorse production, anyway. Sure, he flaunts his great loathing for mankind–his inability to abide human failings. But, at least as he’s played here by Tracy Hultgren, Alceste’s feelings have less to do with his very low opinion of other people than with his very fragile sense of himself. Young and immature, the guy’s basically got an identity problem. For which he compensates by assuming a lot of extravagant–and generally unpleasant–poses. Call this particular version of Moliere’s wry 300-year-old satire something other than The Misanthrope. Call it The Poseur or The Bluffer or The Adolescent. Or maybe just The Fake.
Or better yet, The Littlest Nietzschean. There’s a sort of Triumph of the Will bravado to the compensations of this Alceste. He looks disconcertingly Aryan when we first see him stripped down to a tank top, wearing a modified bristle cut a la von Hindenburg, looking grim but pink cheeked, and doing exercises. His surroundings are sleek and hard. He drinks one of the better brands of bottled water.
And when he talks, his words have that arrogant uber alles edge to them. The philosophical despair, the sweet sadness normally associated with Alceste doesn’t show up here. He’s cold and more than a little priggish when he scolds his friend, Philinte, for hypocritically playing up to people he hardly knows. The superior man, says Alceste, “ought to die of self-disgust [rather than] . . . falsify the heart’s affections thus.” Alceste despises “these lavishers of meaningless embraces . . . [who] praise the fool no less than the man of worth.” In fact, he can’t abide the herd, period: “All are corrupt; there’s nothing to be seen / In court or town but aggravates my spleen.”
This kind of holier-than-thou humbug might be easier to take coming from a more delicate soul; but Hultgren’s Ubermensch act gives it a sullen twist. Self-important, self-centered, self-dramatizing, self-righteous, self-pitying, and generally self-interested, Hultgren’s Alceste would be completely insufferable if not for his happy tendency to fall on his face. This fool may talk about living the uncompromised life, but let him catch sight of dear, false Celimene, and that bristle cut goes all limp.
Alceste pursues Celimene at the expense of his dignity, his principles, and his good sense–rather like poor Professor Unrath in The Blue Angel. But unlike the professor, Hultgren’s Alceste assumes his degradation as nothing more than another pose. Something in the romantic vein. He plays with it: turns it over, and tries it out in various ways, acting ardent or wronged or helpless, as the situation dictates.
The tragedy in all this (and The Misanthrope may be defined as a tragedy with one too many scenes; i.e., the happy one at the end) is that Hultgren’s Alceste has so little sense of himself that he ends up getting lost among his poses, renouncing a possible happiness and talking himself into an exceptionally uncomfortable and lonely corner. The best that can happen to him, after all, is that he’ll be rescued from his corner and thereafter regarded as a harmless, foolish blowhard; that is, as everything he pretended to hate.
The kicker is that director Bill Burnett tells the story in modern dress–very stylish modern dress, by Renee Liepins–turning it into a yuppie parable. The power suit/game/face crowd fits alarmingly well into Moliere’s nasty, knowing scenario.
The Seahorse people are a sharp bunch, and they handle both the script and its updated setting with assurance–as well as a lot of slick humor. Hultgren gets considerable comic mileage out of his soft, pink baby face and the angry deadpan he puts on it. Mark Mysliwiec, as Acaste, makes a striking aesthete–a cross between Artaud and Oscar Wilde, sans either one’s brains. Elizabeth Muckley’s a sort of seductive Margaret Hamilton, combining enormous sexiness with a scratch-out-hereyes cattiness as Arsinoe the prude. And David VanMatre’s woozy servant reminds me, appropriately, of the pudgy little fellow with the day-old beard who’s got a thing for Miss DiPesto on Moonlighting.
Certain crucial elements, however, don’t work. Bridget Ann Kelly never manages to make Celimene anything but an elusive object of Alceste’s game playing; the character has no substance of her own. Then there’s a mask, of what may or may not be a goat, that’s brought out. and displayed at a pivotal moment; it seems to be meant as some kind of controlling image, but of what I haven’t the slightest idea. Luckily, Alceste’s masks are thoroughly absorbing all by themselves.