The unfortunate fortune

Jeune Lune’s ‘The Miser’ places Moli

Matt Graham

Theater, maybe more than any other art form, is a team effort. For a production to work, it takes the combined efforts of the director, cast, costumer, stage designer and the sound and light crew.

Even the best performances tend to have some holes. But when everything comes together, like it does in the Jeune Lune’s production of Moliere’s “The Miser,” it’s a sight to behold.

Moliere’s play, which debuted in France in 1668, centers on a day in the life of Harpagon (Steven Epp), a rich old codger so set on not spending his money that his house looks more like a crumbling heap of plaster than a home. Harpagon and his children and servants are dressed in tattered white rags, looking something like extras from Wes Craven’s “The People under the Stairs.”

Harpagon is intent on marrying the young Mariane (Maggie Chestovich). He is determined to go through with the wedding even though their age difference makes him nervous and, even worse, her poor family brings no dowry.

But Harpagon’s son, Cleante (Stephen Cartmell), is in love with Mariane and she with him. Not one to be sentimental, Harpagon is determined to wed his son to a rich old widow who will bring money to the family.

Meanwhile, Harpagon’s steward, Valere (Jim Lichtscheidl), has been carrying on a secret love affair with Harpagon’s daughter Elise (Sarah Agnew).

Valere makes a living disingenuously agreeing with everything Harpagon says – chiming in with lines like “Spending money is the root of all evil” – and is at a loss for words when he finds out his master is intent on marrying Elise off to the wealthy old man Anselme (Steven P. Peterson) that evening.

As if all that weren’t enough, Harpagon spends the whole day worrying that somebody is going to steal the case full of gold he has buried in his backyard garden. The treasure concerns him so much that he is unable to sleep and becomes more of a paranoid, delusional mess as the play progresses.

The action culminates in a final evening scene, improbable as it is satisfying.

The unlikely ending works because the humor of the play is so outstanding. While it deals with heavyweight themes of love, family and greed, the play is riotously funny.

At times, it resembles the infamous “Benny Hill Show” chase scene, with actors running in and out and all around the crumbling scenery. The dialogue is a bit like the late great “Arrested Development”: two or more characters repeatedly carry on conversations where each one thinks the other is talking about something else entirely, with only the audience aware of what’s really going on.

Of course, considering the age of the text, it’s probably more correct to say the two aforementioned shows resemble “The Miser.”

Jeune Lune shows just enough restraint in its attempts at updating the centuries-old work. Many of the costumes resemble a hodgepodge of the old and new, with a few of the more questionable characters dressed like the Men in Black. At one point, when Harpagon’s plump chef Jacques (Richard Iglewski) tells his master how the public makes fun of him behind his back, he proclaims that “they no longer tell jokes about drunks falling down in the gutter, or vice presidents shooting people.”

The cast is brilliant across the board. Epp’s performance in the title role is particularly sharp (though Lichtscheidl and Iglewski steal a few scenes). Epp’s screeching voice and grotesque movements consistently draw laughs from the crowd, even as they make sure Harpagon is nothing short of

unlikable.

All of the actors have a certain gymnastic quality – contorting their bodies, performing exaggerated movements across the stage, jumping up and off the walls, running around doors and sliding across the floor. Cleante’s servant La Flèche (Nathan Keepers) spends a good portion of one scene going through a series of hand stands as he

delivers his lines, which is an interesting, if confusing,

sight.

The look of the play bolsters the outstanding performances. The all-white set is bracketed by windows on both sides. As the play progresses, the light shining through the windows moves almost undetected from east to west as morning becomes night, with the color always reflecting the mood on stage.

There’s really nothing to nitpick. “The Miser” is a classic text given a superb treatment by a crew that’s been putting on the play for several years around the country and has an instinctive grasp of the material by this point. Theater rarely comes together so well.