You know someone's a tightwad when the most foul, malicious curse you could throw at him is, "May you pay rent in hell!" Such is the case with Harpagon, the infamous skinflint of Moliere's "The Miser." Harpagon's greed dominates and destroys his household.
Theatre de la Jeune Lune's production of "The Miser," now playing at La Jolla Playhouse, highlights the brutality and ugliness in the 17th century playwright's ode to avarice. Yet the tragicomedy, in the hands of director Dominique Serrand and a talented cast, is also a strangely beautiful, visually haunting and very timely piece of theater.
Riccardo Hernandez's stark set holds the faintest hint of former glory in the now dilapidated manor. It is essentially a white box, with Marcus Dilliard's gorgeous lighting design elegantly shifting moods. The roof is patched with plastic. The walls are water-stained. The floorboards are loose and doors have holes in them. The cowering servants are dressed in rags because Harpagon is too cheap to clothe them (Sonya Berlovitz's peculiar and striking raggedy-modern circa Downward Spiral costumes). The cook doubles as stable master to save money.
Worse yet, Harpagon's extreme miserliness threatens to ruin the happiness of his two grown children. Because they are a drain on his finances, Harpagon conspires to marry them off to wealthy widows.
Harpagon, too, is the victim of his own stinginess. He has no generosity of spirit, and even his physicality seems puckered -- Steven Epp plays the character as a tottering old man falling apart at the joints. But anytime the subject of spending his money comes up, he rages with vigor over this -- his lone obsession.
He's reluctant even to let words escape his mouth, as if they were an unaffordable luxury. What instead issues forth are wild facial expressions, a grotesque kind of libido and a series of guttural noises.
The adaptation by David Ball features modern language full of bawdy and bodily humor and colorful insults, at times venturing into the downright vulgar. The language is sometimes rapid-fire and hostile, and other times delivered haltingly, reflecting a certain quiet desperation among the characters that live under Harpagon's tyranny.
Jeune Lune, known for its physical approach to theater, infuses this production with lively farce and commedia dell'arte. When Nathan Keepers, as crafty servant La Fleche, crawls across a chair mysteriously nailed high up on the wall, tumbles to the floor and rolls about onto his head, all the while explaining the financial intricacies of a loan to Cleante, it's a kind of dance that perfectly complements the language.
The characters each have their own vocabulary of physical catchphrases, giving the actors wonderful opportunities for unique comic detail. Jim Lichtscheidl's Valere adds dramatic flamenco flourishes to his humorously overwrought performance. Remo Airaldi putters about like a gigantic wind-up toy as the cook/stable master. Sarah Agnew is a squeaky, cringing Elise, and Stephen Cartmell is posturing and melodramatic as Cleante.
Though the all too tidy Shakespearean wrap-up ends with a clichÈd admonition (i.e., you can't take it with you), the great success for director Serrand and adaptor Ball lies in conveying the timeliness of the play's themes of greed, power, manipulation and corruption. When Harpagon speaks of terror as a way to maintain control, we can't help but consider modern examples. The politics of maintaining power stretch from San Diego City Hall to the presidency and beyond.
And that elevates Jeune Lune's "The Miser" from mere entertainment to important social commentary.
PROGRAM: "The Miser," directed by Dominique Serrand
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Dates: Through Nov. 13
Show times: Tuesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.
Location: Mandell Weiss Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive on campus at UCSD
More information: (858) 550-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.com