Does anybody really say what they think anymore? Is it possible to “escape” awkward situations by skirting reality? Why should it fall to 17th century Molière to raise both of these questions and more?
Have they ever been answered?
To complete its 2011 season’s playbill, the artistic trust at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival opted to mount an evening of poetry where love tries to conquer all but never really gets to first base (both meanings applicable).
Alceste (Ben Carlson in a nearly rhyme-perfect, captivating performance) dares to speak his mind on every occasion—to disastrous effect (cue the lawsuits for defamation of character). Best bud Philinte (an ever-engaging, note-perfect rendering from Juan Chioran whose chemistry/timing with Carlson is the highlight of the production) is far more pragmatic—even as both men pine for seemingly unattainable mates (Sara Topham readily looks the part of the young merry widow Célimène, but requires a few scenes to match the seemingly effortless flow of verses from her incorrigible suitor; Martha Farrell as Eliante has the hots for ever-honest Alceste but may well settle for “second best” Philinte if her coquettish cousin finally yields and weds the constant critic.
Also in the hunt for Célimène’s delicate hand is the far more “mature” (read smitten and much older) Oronte (Peter Hutt fires on all shallow cylinders) whose early-inning sonnet draws nothing but scorn (Oh horror!: How could a copiously fawned-upon colleague reveal that this “poet” has no clothes?) from Alceste when asked to render his unabashedly honest opinion of the tortured lines.
Adding to the amorous fun are a pair of marquesses with a decidedly Laurel and Hardy (Trent Pardy and Steve Ross, respectively) look and tone, but these moneyed men are also in hot pursuit of Célimène, who has a much-deserved reputation as hose-tease extraordinaire.
Fleshing out the leads is Arsinoé (a delightfully catty turn by Kelli Fox) whose “friendship” with Célimène is largely confined to dutifully detailing her deficiencies (which are quickly acknowledged then topped twice over as the two devoted women exchange—apparently—common gossip about one another.
With period reinforcing Baroque strings setting the stage and a bounty of sumptuous costumes thanks to Robin Fraser Paye’s unerring eye, patrons may well be forgiven if they conclude that this situational comedy of manners (good and bad!) “couldn’t happen here.”
Yet that is just the point of David Grindley’s quick-paced direction and the playwright/actor’s vision: being bold enough to speak the truth is just as unpopular now as it was four centuries ago.
Is Stephen Harper fat or rotund? Was the 2008 financial meltdown brought on by an aberration of the system or unqualified greed? Is Tiger Woods’ slump due to swing changes or excessive swinging?
For those of us in the trade of criticism, Alceste’s dilemma hits home like few other scenarios. What would we write if publishers weren’t afraid of law suits (or worse: having advertisements pulled) or performing arts companies “suddenly” stopped providing media seats?
Unfortunately, space restrictions prevent any further discussion of our ethical conundrum; perhaps a wee sonnet might be called for, oh loyal, ever-virtuous, impeccably informed readers of the highest order. JWR