An extraordinary set tips a comedy into tragedy

In one of the most famous scenes in Charlie Chaplin's movie The Gold Rush, the star's Little Tramp character — a lone prospector fortune-hunting in wintry Alaska — finds himself marooned in a dilapidated log cabin with a fellow gold digger. The two comrades endure severe hardships, from boiling and eating a shoe to the Tramp's cabinmate deliriously imagining his companion as an oversized chicken. When the shack suddenly starts tilting at a sickening angle, throwing the two men onto the floor, an exterior shot reveals the true precariousness of the prospectors' situation: Their impromptu home teeters on the brink of a cliff.

I don't know whether scenic wizard Riccardo Hernandez had The Gold Rush in mind when he designed the set for Theatre de la Jeune Lune's production of The Miser (L'Avare). But when the entire back section of the floor came away from its moorings and keeled over to one side, sending actors sliding all over the stage like extras in a Hollywood disaster flick, that scene from Chaplin's film popped into my head. Even if the parallel between the gold-obsessed prospectors of Chaplin's 1925 classic and the paranoid spendthrift in Molière's diabolical 1668 comedy wasn't intended, it seems prescient to me: Not only are both works preoccupied with the disease of greed, but also the scenery is more than a mere backdrop for the action. The sets physically and proactively rebel against that greed.

Director and Jeune Lune co-founder Dominique Serrand calls The Miser “an angry, mean play.” Though its satire isn't as vicious as that of Molière's earlier comedy Tartuffe, the piece — with its self-conscious, mocking ending and disregard for contemporary theatrical conventions (the playwright composed all five acts, much to the consternation of 18th-century audiences, not in poetry but in prose) — conveys something of the author's frame of mind. As such, a mood of exuberant defiance permeates Jeune Lune's show, from the text and performances to the very walls and floors.

Unraveling in one room of the miserly moneylender Harpagon's mansion, the farcical plot follows the fortunes of the titular tightwad's hapless offspring, Elise and Cleante, as they try to coerce their father into relaxing his white-knuckled grip on the family strongbox and letting them marry whom they want. The patriarch, however, has other plans. Taking a rare break from his usual activities (accusing anyone who comes near him of robbing him blind and obsessing over the safety of the trunk of gold buried in his garden), Harpagon orders his children to wed wealthy pensioners and declares his own dastardly scheme to marry the lovely young Mariane — the object of Cleante's affections — himself. Pushed beyond the limits of patience, the household rebels.

This angry energy is used to great comic effect in Serrand's production. David Ball's fast and loose adaptation of the French original explodes with a negativity that is as savage as it is hilarious. The coachman/cook's description of his boss as possessing “the generosity of a dying chicken's puckered asshole” is typical of Ball's style. The characterizations are equally bold. Steven Epp imbues his Harpagon with an athleticism that belies the miser's repulsive, stooped-over frame. When his money's at risk, Harpagon has the swagger and potency of a gun-slinging John Wayne. But most of the time he's a lascivious slimeball, with the voice of Mel Brooks' 2000 Year Old Man and the consumptive physicality of Gollum. You can almost hear him rasping “Precious!” when he throws himself on his treasure chest like a sex-starved beast.

In the meantime, Harpagon's subordinates practice their own variously successful forms of retaliation. With her false teeth, whiny voice, and aquiline figure, Sarah Agnew's Elise might be as ungainly as a cartoon camel. But her underhand, weirdly syntaxed sayings and disarming, sometimes violent, movements suggest determination. As Cleante, Stephen Cartmell employs the fashion statement as his mode of defiance, which is less effective than his sister's. Adorned New Romantic style in a cockatoolike feathered wig, ribbon-trimmed overcoat, and diamond-encrusted “millionaire” T-shirt, this Cleante — as imagined by costume designer Sonya Berlovitz — would look like a John Galliano catwalk model but for his lack of poise. Twitching with impotent rage (which gets a little monotonous after a while), the actor looks like he'll burst a blood vessel any minute. Meanwhile, as the wily servant La Flèche, Nathan Keepers scampers about the set like a lizard, observing Harpagon's hateful behavior from relative safety — halfway up the walls.

Like the far-out clowning of Jeune Lune's trademark physical performance style (the company was founded by disciples of the French physical theater figurehead Jacques Lecoq), the peeling facades, dripping ceilings, and hollow windowpanes of Hernandez' neglected and furnitureless 18th-century manor can barely contain the inmates' frenzied spirit of mutiny. This scenic design is one of the most expressive I've ever seen. Bandaged like a wounded knee with plastic sheets (one tarp is imaginatively used to catch runoff from the leaky roof for later recycling as bathwater), the set at once articulates the emotional state of Harpagon's malnourished kingdom while literally rising up against it. As the action progresses, bits of plaster fall from the ceiling, a floorboard comes loose, and — in one final statement of architectural hyperbole — a huge chunk of floor collapses.

Hernandez' set behaves like a vaudeville comedian; it's practically a living, breathing member of the cast. But beneath the slapstick high jinks of the actors and their surroundings, the architecture ultimately wears a frown. Like the Little Tramp's log cabin teetering on the cliff, the set pushes The Miser's comedy too far, tipping it into the realm of tragedy. It's a long way down, and I doubt St. Peter would consider fitting this unrepentant Scrooge with a pair of wings.

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