(Topanga, CA) July 30, 2009 – The United States has experienced many different kinds of summers, most notably the “Summer of Love” of 1967. As far as 2009 is concerned, it will probably be known as the “Summer of Greed”: skyrocketing gas prices, crashing stocks and interest rates, mortgage foreclosures, Cap and Trade, rising unemployment, and an unsettling, horrifying Health Care Bill that looms over all like an ominous shroud. In reality, Gordon Gecko was wrong in the movie WALL STREET: Greed is not good.
However, its sinful nature makes it a perfect target for satire. And one man who is a master in mocking the carriers of this “infectious disease” is Jean Baptiste De Poquelin, aka Moliere. His plays are timeless when it comes to exposing the flaws of the human condition, from hypochondria ( THE IMAGINARY INVALID) to hypocrisy ( TARTUFFE). But his satire concerning greed is the most popular of his plays and very timely in this day and age, especially when performed at the Will Geer Amphitheatre in Topanga Canyon. The Theatricum Botanicum quenches this hot Summer of Greed by having fun with it in THE MISER, led by a dynamic performance from Alan Blumenfeld in the title role.
The said miser, Harpagon, has only one true love: money. He craves, hoards, coos, praises, worships, and digests the coin of the realm. His greed reaches its pinnacle when he forces his son and daughter to marry into loveless, rich families. But little does he know that his daughter, Elise (an adorable Samara Frame), is in love with Harpagon’s head servant, Valere (a charismatic Chad Jason Scheppner). And the miser’s gambler son, Cleante ( Mike Peebler), is in love with Mariane (a graceful Jennifer Schoch, who was understudying for Willow Geer), a young woman who is arranged to be married to Harpagon himself. Throw in the scheming antics of a wily matchmaker, her clever accomplice, and a servant named Jacques who works as a chef AND a coachman AND a faux judge (a wonderfully duplicitous Ted Barton), and you have a comedy that will be burned into your memories for days.
Ellen Geer excellently serves as the production’s foundation, courtesy of her direction and especially her skills as a composer. The pacing of
THE MISER flows like
Moliere’s beautiful language and the choreography during the most frantic scenes is flawless. But what was stunning about this production are the musical numbers, composed by
Geer herself. During key moments in the play, the players that are involved in the scenes break out into song and the lyrics (written by
Geer and Peter Alsop) add to the hilarity even more. And as the song progresses, all of the servants in the household appear out of nowhere and serve as the chorus, “oohing” and “ahhing” along with the key players. This musical turn is a fantastic, creative touch by
Geer and her company, and it enhances both
Moliere’s eloquent text and the performances by the actors. One special mention: bravo to
Shon LeBlanc and everyone from
Valentino’s for the “subtle” costume designs of Cleante, Harpagon, and Anselme. To say any more would spoil the surprise.
The acting is uniformly spectacular; there is not a false note throughout the entire cast. As the coquettish matchmaker Frostine, Melora Marshall exudes grace and cleverness. Although she is very shrewd and manipulative to Harpagon when attempting to get paid for her services, she also demonstrates moments of compassion when she helps Cleante and Elise plot against their own vile father. Marshall’s chemistry with her accomplice, La Feche (a hysterical Mark Lewis, whose physical comedy is unmatched) is like watching an elegant waltz between two masters. Mike Peebler’s Cleante is also a true pleasure as he shows his full emotional range: his romantic, poetic nature with Mariane; his loyalty to his friend, La Fleche, and his sister; and his rebellious outrage towards his evil father. But what is key here is that he expertly intertwines these emotions with comedic flair, adding considerable charm to the role.
But now we come to the title role of Harpagon. A
Theatricum veteran spanning 25 years,
Alan Blumenfeld made his presence known as the crudely, malignant Casca in
JULIUS CAESAR (which he is performing in repertory with MISER). His portrayal of the obsessive Harpagon is nothing short of genius. Dressed in French renaissance robes, garters, gowns, and regalia,
Blumenfeld’s Harpagon looks like a plump, bald, bespectacled version of Henry the Eighth. His baritone voice booms with power as he stomps and prowls around the stage, shamefully seeking, by any manner necessary, to increase his coffers.
Blumenfeld’s emersion in this rotund, thunderous personality is quite a sight to behold. But his crowning moment comes when his entire treasure is stolen. Here,
Blumenfeld transforms Harpagon’s boisterous arrogance into whining helplessness. He is stripped to his barest essence of a frightened old addict. When this occurs, he actually walks into the audience, pleading directly to them to help find the culprits who robbed him of his financial armor. Row after row, he berates one audience member, he begs another, and even hugs one man in resignation. When
Blumenfeld bellows for his “money”, he stretches the word with lascivious glee, “MAH-KNEEEE,” as though he were calling out to his soul mate. But then his desperation turns into paranoia when he silently stares at everyone, and then shrieks, “You are all looking at me!” Paranoia leads into maniacal accusation and he rants on and on about how the audience is conspiring along with his fellow cast members. During that moment, his performance is like watching an amalgam of
Ben Stein and
Barney Frank hopped up on amphetamines. This monologue---which goes on for ten minutes---really is a testament to
Blumenfeld’s talent and craftsmanship. Although he is hysterical, he brings the pitiful nature of Harpagon to light, revealing the sad fact that the miser’s behavior---although satirical---is very human when it comes to man’s obsession with materialism and greed that can affect any person of any class in any profession. By bringing out the humanity of Harpagon,
Blumenfeld gives what is perhaps the best lead theatrical performance in Southern California so far this year. And add the tight direction and the superior acting by the supporting players, you have a form of pure escapism to help forget the greed in our own society.
The Miser opened July 25 (Saturday night) and runs to September 27 (Sunday night)
The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290
(midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura  freeway)
Photos by: Miriam Geer