"Baccarat, my dear father. I gamble, I win, I buy clothes. Someone has to keep up appearances."
Yes, well. Almost everyone in Molière's satire of bourgeois pettiness under Louis XIV tries to keep up appearances. Harpagon is different only because he wants people to believe he's poor. He lives in a dusty ruin of a home, with monolithic wardrobes and broken candlesticks and a tarnished suit of armor by the door. (Lisa Clark and Alf Pollard designed the magnificent set.) When Cléante needs to borrow money, his father arranges a loan for him through a middleman at an outrageous rate. The origin of the loan, Cléante finds out, is the hideous old miser himself. "They say you save mouthwash to use over again," he accuses his dad.
The best part of this Miser is that director Patrick Dooley hasn't tried to drag a rococo comedy of manners into the 21st century. Resetting Molière in Silicon Valley or Hollywood is almost older hat than performing his plays at all. The notion that Americans now live in a vain and decadent society not so far removed from pre-Revolutionary France is made clear enough by the news every day; we don't, in general, need to hear it again from a stage director. But classical Molière is even harder for a smallish theater company. Where do you find 17th-century costumes and sets? How do you get through the pompous language without driving people away?
Dooley's answer to the language problem is "Play it up." He uses a loose, modern translation by David Chambers, but his actors also push the words across the audience with outsized gestures and loud, farcical enunciation. The barnlike interior of the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts is so open and acoustically strange that it sometimes feels like an outdoor stage; an actor who assumes the audience can hear because it's right there would be sunk. No one takes the audience for granted, and the resulting over-the-top style works well, at least for the central actors. Dooley mitigates his large and busy staging with precise movement techniques he may have picked up from Mark Jackson while they both worked on last winter's blockbuster, The Death of Meyerhold.
In any case, Molière can be dismal if you play him without energy, and energy is one thing this cast doesn't lack. Clive Worsley, as Harpagon, is brilliant; his elaborate, preening viciousness keeps him literally on the toes of his pointed shoes for most of the play. Andy Alabran also does strong, flamboyant work as Cléante; Emily Jordan is wonderfully farcical as the dim-but-pretty Elise (Cléante's sister); and Phil Sheridan is vivid and clear in two minor roles, Anselme and Master Simon. Other actors -- Fontana Butterfield as Frosine, Meghan Doyle as Marianne -- are just not born to play farce. They strain for the big comic effects that the main actors have down pat.
Plot seems almost beside the point in Molière, but for what it's worth, here's the story: Cléante loves Marianne, a rich young thing, but can't get the money from Harpagon to marry her, because Harpagon a) is too stingy and b) has proposed to Marianne himself. The father-son rivalry fuels most of the satire until someone steals Harpagon's chest of 10,000 crowns. Then Harpagon begins to suspect everyone in the room, audience included. His daughter, Elise, meanwhile, conducts a secret affair with one of her father's servants, and when their behavior comes to light Elise is saved from her dad's wrath by an amusing, unlikely coincidence.
Valera Coble's period costumes are simultaneously faithful to 1688 (when The Miser was written) and irreverent; everyone wears a few too many frills. Dooley also sprinkles modern and nonperiod references into the script, and most of them are distracting -- does one character mention Napoleon? -- except for the disco ball used to show the brilliance of a diamond Harpagon buys for Marianne. This cheap, gleeful explosion of his own classical treatment of the play is a miniature example of everything Dooley has done right.
Not that the large, gleeful acting doesn't wear thin after two hours; not that The Miser is perfect. But it's infectious. And it's a clever way to kick off Shotgun's new season, which is entirely admission-free. Last year Dooley noticed that donations at the troupe's annual free summer production raised more money than the average $15-per-ticket play. So this year, the group experiments: Every show is free, or as free as public television is, which is to say that after the ovation the actors give a scripted spiel and surround the audience members, hat in hand, begging them not to be misers.