A.C. Smith, a menace in sequins, had me with his manic inflection of “It’s a sonnet.” Smith plays the pompous Oronte in “The Misanthrope,” now at Court Theatre, where Smith and his cast mates suck every last drop of comic marrow out of Molière’s 17th century comedy of manners, sometimes without speaking a word.
Erik Hellman, wonderfully pouty as Alceste, the grouch of the title, communicates volumes with hangdog looks, while Allen Gilmore, cast against gender as the priggish Arsinoé, plays the drag role straight, garnering even more laughs by sauntering without swishing. His quivering lip says it all.
As good as these actors are at physical comedy, words still reign supreme, as they should. Among the deepest pleasures of this production are rhymed couplets that have lost none of their French sparkle in their journey across the Atlantic thanks to former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur’s pithy, accessible translation. The audience gets all the jokes — and the jokes are still relevant. False flattery, vicious gossip and hypocrisy make timeless grist for Molière’s satiric mill.
Director Charles Newell has assembled an admirable cast. Grace Gealey makes for a sexy Célimène, the tart-tongued young woman of high society who draws Alceste to her like a moth to a flame, with similar results. Kamal Angelo Bolden as Philinte and Patrese D. McClain as Éliante bring sweet sincerity to their roles as foils for Alceste and Célimène. Travis Turner and Michael Pogue revel in their portrayals of self-important minor nobility.
The production pats itself on the back for its colorblind casting, with African-American actors in the majority. The program even goes so far as to note that Gealey is biracial, something not immediately apparent. But what is the point? Race is less important than acting chops; what works is that all the acting is solid. Truly colorblind casting — Ora Jones as Queen Katherine in “Henry VIII,” now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, comes to mind — doesn’t need to talk itself up.
Black-and-gold costumes by Jacqueline Firkins set the tone as punk royal, with the men bare-chested under their fur collars and braided embellishments and Gealey in a bustier and garters that Madonna would envy. Gealey is up-lit like an innocent schoolgirl at a campfire (lighting by Keith Parham) as she dishes out dirt that might make even Madonna blush. And with Court Theatre sited on the University of Chicago campus, the production credits Molière scholar and U of C professor Larry F. Norman.
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago
Through June 9, 2013
Tickets: $45 – $65 (student and senior discounts available): (773) 753-4472 or CourtTheatre.org
Photos: Michael Brosilow