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Greed is Good 

by Michael Bowen

Exulting in the limelight, commanding thunder and lightning to do his bidding, a man glories in thoughts of revenge. The first act of director Michael Weaver's production of The Miser on Spokane Civic Theater's Main Stage (through April 24) ends with the title character triumphant. The production's final image, too, has Harpagon secluded in a pool of light, clutching his precious moneybox and dancing with joy. (You can practically hear him chanting, "It's mine, all mine.") The point of Moliere's satire, of course, is that it's a false victory: The man isolated in the spotlight values bills and coins more than he does people and their emotions.

Harpagon (Jack Phillips, in a performance that goes from lackluster to energetic) is a paranoid little penny-pincher who lives in fear. He's afraid that the servants will figure out where he's stashed his loot, afraid that his children might marry for (gasp!) love instead of money, afraid that somehow, somewhere, his precious livres and centimes are being wasted.

But Moliere's central figure, L'Avare -- The Avaricious One, The Greedy Old Bastard -- isn't the only one made fun of in this play. The sweet young things are stupid; the handsome young men are fops; the cops are Keystone; and everyone's running around like the Three Stooges -- if the Stooges had only worn those nice brocade waistcoats.

Indeed, Susan Berger and Lisa Caryl's costumes put a French spin on the riverboat-gambler look: loud plaid pants for the scheming servants, quasi-military buttons and bows for the fop, big puffy sleeves and parasols for the dainty ladies. Nik Adams' set, moreover, conveys Harpagon's cheapskate lifestyle: broken-down shutters, carpets rolled up in the corners, paintings ripped off the walls.

The plot has Harpagon trying to marry for money and getting his son to do the same; problem is, they're both after the same girl. Throw in a manipulative matchmaker and some quasi-clever servants who know where the master has hidden his strongbox, and you've got the makings of a farce upholstered with a moral lesson. Sure, the proceedings are resolved by the most bald-faced of deus ex machina devices. But by that point, who cares if some long-lost relatives turn up? We've been entertained by a fast-paced put-down of a basic human failing, greed. And so what if everything's exaggerated? After all, theatergoers can see themselves in characters who are fools for love, fools for money, fools for damn near everything.

David Chambers's translation combines physical and verbal comedy, and the Civic's cast often succeeds, especially with the slapstick: Harpagon being pulled around by the ring-finger; Phillips making people "disappear" by putting his hand over his eyes; a great visual pun when Harpagon, bereft of his beloved booty, swoons histrionically to his "death."

Yet despite one standout sequence -- Phillips and Jerry Sciarrio (as one of those clever servants) exchanging rapid-fire dialogue like a pair of vaudeville veterans -- generally the verbal fireworks were muted. Phillips lacks the hyperactive self-concern of Harpagon's early monologues directed at the audience. Characters who are supposedly dim-witted seem only partly so (though Stuart McKenzie catches the comic discomfort of a vindictive cook caught in a lie). In a series of comic contrasts -- father competing with son, brother and sister both trying to manipulate Dad, young lovers quarreling, servants trying to outwit their masters -- in almost every case, the actors don't put as much intensity into the verbal jokes as into the physical comedy. Fortunately, the appearance of Jone Campbell Bryan as the scheming marriage broker raises the energy level, raising the verbal intensity up to where the sight gags are. And from the frantic sequence that concludes in that thunderclap at the end of Act One, all the way through most of Act Two, the pace is properly set at Frantic.

In fairness, an unresponsive opening-night audience can also be faulted. People were sitting on their hands; some even took offense. This show's idea of risque behavior involves baring a woman's shoulders, yet afterwards the house manager could be overhead reporting how four couples had stamped their feet and left, offended.

Some people, like Harpagon, cling to their piggy banks; others clutch onto their piety, afraid they'll be revealed to be no different than the rest of us. For such folks, evidently, satire still has its uses, whether it involves Jonathan Swift berating exploiters, H.L. Mencken bemused by Puritans or Moliere belittling tightwads.

Weaver's direction accented the satiric thrusts, and the Civic's cast often kept the comedy crisp enough that we could laugh at our own excesses. But in general, this Miser, a bit tightfisted about the laughs, wasn't as funny as it should have been.

Publication date: 04/08/04

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