There is so much going on inside Charles Newell's eye-popping production in "The Misanthrope" — a wildly ambitious mish-mash of a show that variously suggests the court of Louis XIV had it been populated mostly by African-Americans, Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," the signature look of the department store Henri Bendel and Jonas Akerlund's promotional video for Beyonce's "The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour" — that it is not at all easy to know where to start.
The pesky fundamentals, though, present themselves.
For all of its laudable risk-taking — and I mean that not as a throwaway clause but as sincere admiration for the complexity and distinctiveness of this typically no-holds-barred effort from this essential Chicago director — Court Theatre's "Misanthrope" does not work because it lacks truth and fails to establish a consistent world in which the audience can believe and feel at home. It doesn't work because there is no discernible normal, and while the normal can be new, old or both at once, classic comedy always needs some such referent to make us laugh, move us or to provoke us to revelation.
Consider the play. Moliere's "Misanthrope," one of the most celebrated comedies ever written, is about a man named Alceste who becomes frustrated at the prevailing tendency to flatter people to their face, especially people in power, and then trash them in private. The play has remained popular these last 347 years because people still flatter others to their faces, especially those in power, and then trash them in private. It's as simple as that. Think about Friday at your office.
The fantasy of being able to say exactly what you think at all times, without regard for ongoing employment or one's place in some stultifying professional or personal network, remains potent. And Moliere had that desire down, deliciously. The most famous scene involves a pretentious dilettante, name of Oronte, reading a lousy sonnet he's penned and getting praised all around. Except from Alceste, whose impractical honesty brings down a heap of trouble on his own head.
When modernizing or Americanizing this play, directors and adapters have tended to gravitate toward professions known for their smarmy insincerity and brutal personal disregard — show business, media and the like. "The Misanthrope" can stand all kinds of things. There even can be a variety of views about Alceste (truth-teller and pompous prig being two extremes). But there has to be a world where flattery is just the normal way of doing business. This production is set in France in what feels like a stylized version of the play's original period, but it also feels as if these characters are not so much going about their insincere business but commenting thereupon. And once everyone knows they're full of blather, once that behavior is set off theatrically in such an extreme way, the entire comic presence collapses.
John Culbert's scenic design for the piece is full of rich woods and gilded varnishes, and it packs quite the initial visual punch. In the middle is a kind of raised platform with its own moat and mechanical curtain that descends, movie theater-style. It's a boudoir for Celimene, the most glamorous queen of this particular court, replete with her fetishized boots and bustier (designer Jacqueline Firkins' costumes are really quite the tour de force of excess). The referent would appear to be a stage, or a fashion runway. It's a cool look, but it works against that issue of normalcy, adding one too many levels of remove whereupon Grace Gealey's Celimene can preen, knowing full well what she is doing, which is only part of the troubles. Everyone is talking across a gulf.
More problematic yet, it never feels as if Erik Hellman's Alceste, whom Firkins has looking not so different from the gilded fashions of this faux-rococo world, is sufficiently separate from his milieu. Actually, the character's point of view — what we are supposed to feel about him — is never really clear, and thus we don't feel much at all, Hellman's considerable skills notwithstanding.
I suspect the intent here was to forge a sexy show. Fair enough: Moliere can always use a bit of spice. But that does not come off. The visuals of sexual provocation abound, but the desire of the characters is not palpable. Nobody really connects with anyone else on any kind of truthfully sensual level — partly because we go from quiet intimacy to outrageous theatricality in a matter of minutes.
Newell has cast most of the show (which uses the Richard Wilbur translation when it really needed its own, as it needed a better musical soundtrack) with many of Chicago's leading black actors. That should not be particularly unusual in this day and age, yet issues of race and casting are thorny, and it's true that productions of Moliere, en general, lag behind productions of other classic authors when it comes to diversity. So this is a genuine provision of opportunity, the chance for us all to see masters like A.C. Smith (playing Oronte) and Allen Gilmore (playing Arsinoe, in drag) stretching themselves. There are further rewards there: The excellent Patrice D. McClain, who plays Eliante, comes off best of all when it comes to forging a character that you feel might actually exist in the real world.
But Newell is not casting without paying attention to race, which would have been better, I think, in the case of this particular play. Rather, he's seemingly picking actors to try to bridge the white, European world of Moliere with that of the baroque experiments of certain high-style sectors of the African-American style and entertainment worlds. I can see how some might find this entire enterprise problematic, but I'd argue that he and his very game actors and designers are going for something fresh and progressive here. Good for them. It just doesn't come off, not least because it brings too much clutter, baggage and artifice of its own.
When: Through July 14
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 W. Ellis Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org