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The Miser at Berkeley Rep

A Comic Gag That Hasn’t Lost Its Edge

Bad manners, lowly comic gags, and jejune slapstick humor never looked as good as they do in Jeune Lune’s ribald contemporary adaptation of Molière’s "The Miser". A 1668 play about a simpering curmudgeon whose notorious love of gold keeps everyone, including his two children, at bay, "The Miser’s" economy of language is wryly complemented by its skinflint protagonist’s scrimping and churlishness. The production -- with its queasy taste for four-letter words and all-around nastiness -- preserves the commedia dell’arte archetypes and masterful comic timing that Molière’s own theatre company sought to bring their audiences; and Jeune Lune proves that the gambit doesn’t stale for a moment.

The play, re-conceived by Jeune Lune’s Steven Epp (who plays the maligning sexagenarian Harpagon) and playwright Dominique Serrand, is full of some of the most delicious roles peddlers of physical comedy have sunk their teeth into in years. Epp’s Harpagon is a tongue-wagging, crotch-scratching, bowed-over old ogre who skitters around his dilapidated home accusing his servants and children of attempting to milk him of his beloved gold. Though Harpagon is perhaps one of the least sympathetic characters in all of theatre, his susceptibility to flattery and his own waggish vanity upstage the other protagonists altogether.

Élise (played by a brilliant Sarah Agnew) is Harpagon’s cowed daughter, who plays the role with such a pathos-inflected patois that she completely lampoons the role of damsel in distress. A swooning, doe-eyed maiden with crumpled dress, broken hoop skirt, and a mop of disarranged curls, Élise is the character who first clues the audience into the fact (announced in a tremulous stage whisper) that all is not right in her world. Namely, Élise is in love with Valère (Jim Lichtscheidl), her father’s lowly steward, who also has a penchant for flamenco-infused dramatics.

The two huddle together, plotting on how to win over Élise’s tight-fisted father, who will surely disavow the lovers’ plan to marry. Soon, Élise’s petulant, solipsistic brother Cléante (played by a starry-eyed Stephen Cartmell, who cuts an imposing figure with perhaps the best headpiece I’ve seen on stage: a Mohawk of glittery spikes set atop a cascading tumble of foppish black and purple curls), also confides in her that he has fallen in love with a beautiful but penniless maiden, Mariane. The plot essentially revolves around the siblings’ plan to break news of their love to their father. However, when Harpagon announces his own plan -- to marry off Élise and Cléante to an aging bachelor and widow, respectively, and to take Mariane for his wife himself -- all pretensions of decorum are flushed down the toilet.

Aside from the salty but impeccable comic delivery, the main wonder of this production is Riccardo Hernandez’s monumental, crumbling set, which acts as a metaphor for Harpagon’s decayed moral priorities. Once-alabaster walls and shining floors are reduced to water-stained dilapidation and rotting floorboards. The disheveled children (with the exception of spendthrift Cléante, who looks like a prodigal Club Kid) and gaggle of hobbling, perpetually befuddled servants mirror the disrepair of the set. Great plastic sheets hang off the ceilings, as if to earmark a derelict construction site, while the actors caper around the set like skittish vaudevillians, sometimes making brilliant use of the sole piece of furniture in the room: a chair that’s stuck high on a wall in the foreground. Water that leaks from giant holes in the roof is used to draw Harpagon’s bath, while tattered gauze curtains are collected to make Élise’s wedding veil. The laughable abjection even trickles over into Sonya Berlovitz’s cheeky costumes -- a collection of pale, bleached garments that further emphasize the characters’ skeletal self-abasement, prompted by Harpagon’s unquenchable greed.

Comic delights permeate the play, including the whiskey-throated, plain-spoken matchmaker Frosine (played by Barbara Kingsley), who attempts to set Harpagon up with Mariane; the bouncy Mariane herself (Maggie Chestovich), an awkward adolescent in Pippi Longstocking garb who butchers her syntax with charm and exuberance; and Master Jacques, Harpagon’s scheming cook/coachman (David Rainey), who ingratiates himself with his master as he plots against the insouciant Valère. The characters represent commedia archetypes that are timeless: the fop/solipsist; breezy hero; snaky servant; aging malcontent; ditzy cutie; and hard-talking woman of the streets, to name a few. Recognizing the characters’ intentional exploitation of these roles makes the excruciating gymnastics of the play and its perfectly timed physical comedy seem closer to the original production than one might surmise on first glance.

Serrand and Epp bring down the house by also breaking the fourth wall, letting an incensed Harpagon deride the audience, making them almost complicit in his own avarice. The protracted bickering -- earmarked by goofy facial expressions and classic gestures of buffoonery -- lengthen the drama substantially, which might not appeal to viewers who find traditional commedia antics a bit passé.

The end of the play is not entirely humorous. As Harpagon’s self-imposed prison collapses all around him, the farcical coarseness of the play is offset by a darker impression of what makes the old man so obscene. Seeing Harpagon bask like an ardent lover in a pool of gold long after his family and servants have abandoned him brings to mind Molière’s original satirical intent so powerfully, so unapologetically, that the mask of comedy loses its jocoseness momentarily, revealing a truth about the human condition that is absolutely breathtaking in its candor.

Through June 25th at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.