There is a telling moment in the opening scene of Center Stage's production of Moliere's "The Misanthrope." Director Irene Lewis has set the scene at a fancy dress ball to which all of the guests wear elaborately feathered bird masks. When the title character, Alceste, removes his mask, his wig comes off with it.
This isn't mere comic business. Alceste has been raging against insincerity, artifice and false flattery -- but though he is clearly uncomfortable wearing a wig, he accepts the social occasion's requirement to hide behind a mask.
The ludicrousness of this situation is reinforced when the mask and wig come off, and we realize how little this self-righteous character knows himself. This early glimpse into Alceste's contradictory nature typifies Lewis' knowing direction, as well as Stephen Markle's complex portrayal of Alceste.
The complexity is most apparent in Alceste's romance. Though the character is celebrated for his intelligence, he admits he cannot explain his feelings for flirtatious Celimene, a woman totally different from him in temperament. Yet Markle makes these emotions credible -- even a touch sad. This is the attraction of opposites, and the more he fights it, the more it overtakes him. Not only do his clothes become increasingly disheveled, but when he explodes in a jealous fury, his surrender is so complete, he ends up crumpled on the floor, leaning against a wall for support.
As the title indicates, the focus of Moliere's 17th century comedy traditionally rests with Alceste. However, one of the most intriguing aspects of this production is that Lewis has shifted a chunk of the emphasis to his love interest. In one of her boldest directorial moves, she gives the play's final, silent moment to the abandoned Celimene -- a choice totally justified by Lynnda Ferguson's adroit performance.
In addition, Donald Byrd has choreographed two between-the-scenes dances for Celimene, illustrating her coquetry and vanity. In the former, she literally leads two suitors on, and in the latter, she dances with a full-length mirror. Needless to say, it is impossible to imagine Alceste engaging one of these pretty little dances.
Lewis previously staged this production in 1989 at California's Berkeley Repertory Theatre with Markle and Ferguson, as well as Judith Marx, who humorously reprises her broad turn as Celimene's prudish friend, Arsinoe. Even broader comedy shows up in the bawdy antics of Alceste's valet, played by David J. Steinberg. His clowning is one of several ways the production tweaks the formality of Richard Wilbur's magnificent verse translation.
The fresh insights in this "Misanthrope" make it noteworthy on its own terms, but just as Moliere's plays commented on the times, Center Stage's production seems to be saying something about our times as well. In an election year, surely it is more than coincidence that Center Stage has mounted a play in which appearance is everything, and truth-telling is the gravest of all political faux pas.
"The Misanthrope" continues at Center Stage through June 7. Call (410) 332-0033.