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Reserve Bank: Will Huddleston clings to his money chest in 'The Miser.'

Molière Better Blues

California Theatre Center wrings contemporary laughs out of 'The Miser'

By Marianne Messina

SINCE THE California Theatre Center spends the school year performing children's shows and fostering theater in the schools, the troupe was right at home with all the kids who turned up at a recent Saturday-night performance of Molière's The Miser. The company's "ardent" acting obviously played well to the front row, an enthusiastic group of students from the CTC's Summer Conservatory program. The row of youngsters laughed and howled--something not often experienced at the theater these days, yet much in keeping with the way Molière's piece would have been received in his day. They also dispelled any idea that a 17th-century French play is inaccessible to contemporary audiences.

Adults may have found the performance overwrought, the smiles a little too broad, the double takes a little too pronounced, and yet it was hard not to laugh. Molière's Miser, Harpagon (Will Huddleston, with a varied catalog of miserly glances), is prone to coming downstage and confiding in the audience--usually regarding the money he has buried in the backyard and how he thinks this or that person has designs on it.

Huddleston takes the "aside" to a contemporary level late in the second act when Harpagon's money chest (it was inevitable) turns up missing. The Miser has a meltdown and turns on his former confidants, the audience. Sputtering accusations like "You're laughing at me" and "You're all in on it," Huddleston dashes off the stage and into the audience in search of his money. Running into a back row, he picks up a woman's pocket book, saying, "What's in here?" and shuffling the contents as the surprised theatergoer laughs nervously. "Pathetic!" Huddleston grunts, dropping the bag, and he runs back onto the stage to slip smoothly behind the fourth wall.

This Miser is a fascinating conflation of translations and adaptations by CTC's Gayle Cornelison--a 350-year-old play comes with centuries of translation and no "estate" to dictate what can and can't be done with the text. So we get lines that contemporize the text, like, "He never even says, 'Have a nice day'; he says, 'Borrow a nice day and give it back.'" We get references like Rick Haffner's "Chef Boyardee," complete with soup-label pose, as he plays the portly Anselme, would-be suitor to Marianne (Jessica Carroll's portrayal had a kind of Bernadette Peters appeal).

Then, thanks to a 19th-century interpolation, Christopher Mahle comes out dressed hand-in-jacket as Napoleon Bonaparte and proceeds to play the already anachronistic Magistrate as Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. Among so many tenuous contemporary comedies, odd that this old dinosaur could elicit so much laughter. There's just something funny about an inveterate skinflint who trusts only himself ("How many times have I told me not to talk to myself?") and an invisible audience.

The Miser plays in repertory at Sunnyvale Community Theatre, 550 Remington Dr., Santa Clara, with performances July 9 at 8pm, July 13 at 2 and 7pm, July 18 at 8pm, July 19 at 4pm and July 26 at 8pm. Tickets are $18-$25. (408.720.0873)

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From the July 10-16, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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