By Molière, in a new version by Ranjit Bolt, directed by Antoni Cimolino. Through Oct. 29 at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford. Stratfordfestival.ca and 1-800-567-1600.
The 17th century meets the present in this pacy production of Molière’s classic comedy where Colm Feore is ridiculously watchable as the title character, Harper, a rich man obsessed with his fortune. Even though what he says and does is loathsome, Feore’s Harper is so charismatic and his physical performance so skilful that he keeps the audience laughing and groaning from start to rousing finish.
The story’s all about marriage and legacy: Both of Harper’s children are in love with unsuitable partners and worried that their father will ice them out of their inheritance. Charlie (Qasim Khan) adores unwealthy Marianne (Beck Lloyd); and Eleanor (Alexandra Lainfiesta)’s beau Victor (Jamie Mac) comes from money but has taken on a job as Harper’s butler to be near her. Meanwhile Harper has buried his money in the garden and decided that it’d be a dandy idea to marry Marianne himself, egged on by the cougarish matchmaker Fay (Lucy Peacock).
A key motor of director Antoni Cimolino’s production is the play’s resonance with present-day generational rifts: “These Millennials are woke but broke!” Fay exclaims at one point. If that line doesn’t sound like a play first performed in 1668, strap in: with the consent of translator/ adapter Ranjit Bolt, this production includes a raft of topical and Canadian references: Jeff Bezos, Tim Hortons, dick pics, “OK Boomer,” and Mont Tremblant all get a mention.
I embraced these lines because the performers are so good at delivering them, and because interweaving topical and local material into the play is in the spirit of commedia dell’arte, a theatrical tradition in which Molière was working. Plus it provides opportunities for Feore to work his comic magic, as in a gag about a certain recent FBI raid, which he doesn’t specifically name but does a wink-wink-nudge-nudge about, that brings the delighted audience further into his thrall.
Julie Fox’s set and costume design too blends old and new: her costumes layer period embellishments such as ruffled bibs and decorative panniers (side hoops on skirts) onto contemporary fashions. This creates a 1960s/’70s retro vibe, most memorably in Harper’s wedding suit, an outrageous, pale violet, bell-bottomed affair that makes him look like a member of “Waterloo”-era ABBA.
At first I scratched my head about ’60s/’70s references in the setting (a dated telephone, TV, and vacuum) but eventually understood them as perhaps adding to that retro theme, as well as providing further evidence of Harper’s nature — as a miser he’s also a hoarder and hasn’t updated his appliances.
The production offers numerous opportunities for performers to show off their comedic chops, and for Cimolino to flex his considerable muscle in directing crisp, witty large-cast productions. Khan is very funny as the entitled Charlie, channelling a similar energy to Dan Levy in “Schitt’s Creek” in making his character as lovable as he is exasperating. Beck Lloyd brings great strength and clarity to playing Marianne as more than a pawn in a tug of war between father and son.
Peacock appears to be having the time of her life as the extravagant, leather-and-leopard-clad Fay, a very different, equally impressive performance from that she gives as the regally contained Queen Elizabeth in “Richard III.” Emilio Vieira too is having a terrific season as two baddies — Catesby in “Richard III” and the nimbly gleeful thief Fletcher in this show.
Both this production and “Richard III” were directed by Cimolino and built around Feore in their title roles. This casting lets him show off his extraordinary range as a performer, notably physically. Here’s he’s running across the stage at full tilt and making scarecrow movements with his gangly arms that are as weird as they are wonderful.
As this is a classic comedy, things end with positive resolution and three marriages — the last one between Harper and his money. After a fabulous closing dance number to Steven Page’s clever music blending contemporary beats with harpsichords, our anti-hero is left alone onstage rubbing stacks of bills on his face. It’s totally funny, creepily sexy, and the cherry on top of a first-rate season for Feore.
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