There are two sets of palettes at work in the new Court Theatre staging of The Misanthrope. One emphasizes black and gold, especially in the exuberantly filigreed costumes created by Jacqueline Firkins. The other is all about flesh tones—deep brown to pink. Erik Hellman stands at the pale end of the spectrum, playing the brutally honest title character, Alceste, at a level of whiteness commonly associated with people of European descent. Practically everybody else onstage goes with darker, Africa-inspired hues. And then there’s Grace Gealey as Alceste’s too-clever love interest, Celimene. Both her character and her tawny complexion play both sides against the middle.
You think I’m kidding, don’t you? And rather tastelessly, at that. But no, director Charles Newell actually does appear to have a melanin-based conceit going here. The pattern is too obvious to be anything but deliberate. (Or else weirdly oblivious.) Moliere’s decadent 17th-century French aristocrats are uniformly represented by coffee-colored actors—except when it comes to the dissenter in their midst and the woman who’s become entangled with him.
Which has to be a first. Color-blind casting has been around for years, but I can’t say I’ve heard of a previous instance of color-scheme casting.
That being the case, the question naturally arises: What the fuck?
First produced in 1666, during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV, The Misanthrope is a comedy in rhymed couplets, centered on well-born, smart, but impolitic Alceste, who can’t stand the intrigues, lies, narcissism, and general two-facedness of court life—and isn’t too shy to say so. Perversely, his reckless candor seems to have made him all the more alluring to his effete fellow nobles: they hope to feed their egos by gaining his favor. Yet when Alceste tells powerful Oronte exactly what he thinks of a love sonnet Oronte has composed, all hell breaks loose. Suddenly Alceste is the defendant in a legal action.
Meanwhile, Celimene is fending off suitors like a Bourbon Penelope. A couple of particularly egregious fops pretty much camp out at her Parisian pied-a-terre. And that sonnet Oronte wrote? Guess who inspired it. Though Celimene assures Alceste that she loves only him, she also allows as how she’s got to keep the other guys in play so that she can advance her interests at court. Duplicity ensues.
How does race figure into any of the above? Maybe it’s not supposed to. I’ve seen it argued that Newell’s casting strategy is nothing more nor less than a way to get some of Chicago’s most talented black artists into prominent roles in a classic of the Western canon. But that in itself doesn’t explain why he reserved the most prominent role of all for a white actor. Erik Hellman is always a marvel onstage, and he plays the hell out of Alceste, offering intimations of a somewhat punkified Hamlet. Still, I can imagine an African-American or two who might be equally fascinating.
What I can’t imagine is a viable dramaturgical reason for Newell’s casting concept other than the color-coding theory: Alceste is white to telegraph his outsider status in the context of an overwhelmingly black social environment.
The trouble there is that skin color isn’t just skin color in America. It carries heavy—in fact, the heaviest—cultural implications. Having posited an overwhelmingly black French court, Newell is stuck with some ugly consequences. Like the fact that fatuity, hypocrisy, vanity, decadence, and dishonesty all reside with that court. And that they aren’t just individual vices, either, but endemic to the system. Even Alceste’s one true friend, Philinte—sweetly, patiently played by Kamal Angelo Bolden—can be seen as complacently going along to get along. By contrast, Alceste may be a fool, but he’s a noble fool in a corrupt world. His whiteness can come to represent his purity.
And that’s not good. I don’t believe for a second that Newell is consciously trying to send that message, but it’s a possible, plausible reading.
Really, the production doesn’t work all that well even if you choose to ignore all the racial politics, mainly because the sexual politics are screwed up, too. Hellman and Gealey never manage to communicate a sense of what would keep Alceste and Celimene coming back to each other despite their many and significant differences. What’s more, Celimene’s cousin Eliante is supposed to be a contender for both Alceste’s and Philinte’s affections, but Patrese McClain’s performance in the role doesn’t make the case for it. And as those egregious fops competing for Celimene, Travis Turner and Michael Pogue posture to no particular end.
Gealey redeems things a bit by suggesting that Celimene is as much a victim as a manipulator. And Allen Gilmore has a triumphant turn, cross-dressed, as Arsinoe, the sneak than whom none is sneakier. For the most part, however, we’re left with What the fuck.