To see a Moliere play is to be struck anew by the enduring hilarity of the French master. The current production of "The Miser" at the Theatricum Botanicum is a case in point. Even after 300-plus years, Moliere's comedy about a wealthy old skinflint determined to force his son and daughter into loveless marriages while he marries a girl half his age can still elicit appreciative hoots from modern-day audiences.

That is, of course, if the play is given the right staging. At the Theatricum, those appreciative hoots regularly resound through the Topanga hillsides. That laughter is a sure indicator of a successful staging. And Ellen Geer's is mostly spot-on.

The problem is that Geer apparently doesn't quite trust the text. Naturally, it's the mandate of every theater director to put his or her particular stamp on a piece. But in adding her own musical numbers to "The Miser" (lyrics co-written by Peter Alsop), Geer crosses the line from interpretation to vandalism. The original songs interrupt the play's momentum and are so intermittent that they seem afterthoughts. To borrow from that old Borscht Belt joke, the food is terrible -- and the portions are too small.

That's a serious shortfall, but given the production's other virtues, easily forgiven. And the chief virtue of this "Miser" is the superlative Alan Blumenfeld in the title role as the venal, hilariously grasping Harpagon. A Theatricum stalwart for some 25 years, Blumenfeld makes Harpagon a stocky and compact force of nature, bustling about the stage, peering owlishly through his Coke-bottle glasses, roaring at anyone who flouts him. Blumenfeld is a joy to behold.

A pure pleasure is Melora Marshall as the scheming go-between, Frosine, whose scenes with Harpagon crackle with the sparks that fly when an immovable object meets an irresistible force. Frosine wants payment for matching Harpagon with the virginal young Mariane (excellent Willow Geer). She wheedles, seductively. Harpagon demurs, cunningly. And so it goes, blissfully.

Other performances are also noteworthy: Samara Frame and Chad Jason Scheppner are likely young lovers, separated by Harpagon's greed but destined for a happy ending. As Harpagon's son Cleante, secret lover of Mariane, Mike Peebler mingles ardor with just the right hint of foppishness. Ted Barton is fittingly splenetic as Harpagon's coachman and cook, who wears many hats, literally.

Even those woefully misplaced musical numbers can be attributed to the general playfulness that pervades this lighthearted production -- prime Moliere, with the belly laughs to prove it.



'The Miser'

Where: Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga

When: 4 p.m. Aug. 22, 8 p.m. Aug. 15 and 29 and Sept. 5, 12 and 19. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13 and 27. Ends Sept. 27

Price: $20 to $30

Contact: (310) 455-2322

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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