Early in the play Valere explains to his true love, Elise, how he manages to get along so well with her father. "I praise his shortcomings," he says, "and flatter, flatter, flatter . . . "
Valere's strategy works well. The flattering servant is the only person in the household who can get along with The Miser, M. Harpagon. However, Valere admits, his own integrity seems to be bending under the weight of all the fawning.This is part of the charm of the play, The Miser, as Moliere wrote it and as Tom Markus directs it at Pioneer Memorial Theatre. Not only is the main character, Harpagon, a comic figure, but the other characters, too, have their little flaws and foibles. There's a lot to laugh at.
Take Cleante, for example. Harpagon's son is played by Bob Kirsh. Everything he wears, from his dressing gown to his silk trousers, is bedecked with bows.
When Harpagon objects to how much money his son spends on his wardrobe, the audience can't help but chuckle. Not only is Harpagon being a cheapskate, but, we have to agree, Cleante does look quite dumb.
Moliere wrote "The Miser" in 1668. He satirizes the manners of French society. And it is not only the greedy men like Harpagon who come under his scrutiny.
Harpagon's son Cleante is in love with an impoverished neighbor girl. His daughter, Elise, is in love with his servant, Valere. The only thing that stands in the way of happily ever after is the fact that neither son nor daughter has a dime, nor any chance to pry any money out of Harpagon - nor does either have the guts to tell their father, "I'm in love."
Harpagon, at least, has guts. Richard Mathews plays him as a spry, gnome-like little miser. He's ruthless. He's quirky. We like him more than we should.
Mathews is a veteran. Pioneer Theatre Company regulars will remember him from Dracula, Saint Joan, The Three Muskateers and a dozen others. He's also appeared in more than 30 productions with the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. He does an excellent job with the role of Harpagon.
Melody Combs plays Mariane, the young woman who Cleante wants to marry. She comes to us from New York. Bernadette Wilson is Elise. Wilson has acted in television and on stage around the country and first came to PTC as Lucy in Dracula. Both Combs and Wilson are satisfyingly sweet and silly in their roles.
Valere is John Patrick Rice. Before coming to Salt Lake City, Rice was acting in Shakespeare at the Folger in Washington, D.C. He gives Valere some strength and mastery. Valere holds his own against Harpagon. Rice's stage presence is almost equal to Mathews'.
Frank Gerrish plays a servant, Jacques. Gerrish has been in many PTC productions and is becoming a favorite character actor.
Linda Sarver's costumes are pretty - lots of flowing silks and pale satins. The set, designed by Ariel Ballif, is quite pretty, too. There are a few pieces of furniture, and behind and overall is a garden with a huge tree. Light plays off the tree beautifully throughout the production. When the actors speak of love sending down roots, the effect of the tree in the background is even more pleasing.
The action builds slowly during the first act. The comic effect and emotion reach a pinnacle in the second act when Kirsh and Mathews negotiate over who will marry whom.
The play resolves itself with farcical devices about long-lost relatives and stolen money - made all the funnier because the actors themselves play the scene so lightly.
All in all, this is a light production. There is not a lot of shouting. The director has given us but a few slapstick moments.
By in large, the Pioneer Theatre version is an understated, rather sophisticated rendition of "The Miser." And a very enjoyable one.