Rich 'Miser' could use some balance

Timothy Titus

Theater as a medium for promoting religion is nothing new. At a time

when most parishioners were illiterate, the use of theater, painting,

sculpture and even stained-glass windows to relate Biblical stories

and values to the masses was vital to the religion's existence.

Three Trees, a Costa Mesa-based partnership of local churches, has

continued this long tradition, and they could not have picked a

better piece than "The Miser," Moliere's classic tale of pathetic

greed, to deliver a ringing "last-will-be-first" message.

Moliere's vicious satire stresses money's singular ability to

stoke the fires of isolation, wretchedness and distrust -- all,

ironically, in the name of society, comfort and trust. Harpagon is

the miser, played with a strange combination of likable energy and

hateful anger by Rick Arbuckle. The classic Scrooge, Harpagon hordes

his money in small amounts all over his home and obsessively guards

it, allowing it to benefit no one, not even himself.

Arbuckle deftly manages the demanding physical comedy of the role,

while delivering the message that his wealthy character is the

poorest person on the stage. It is in the subtlety that he somewhat

falters. Arbuckle's miser is loud and wrathful in his

single-mindedness, which causes his audience to think of him in two

extremes: We laugh at him, or we ridicule him. We never quite pity

him enough to examine the faults within him or ourselves.

This theme extends throughout the performance. All of the actors

excel at the piece's physicality and their character's intensities.

As Harpagon's daughter Elise, Jennifer Koehler displays an intensity

in her love for Valere (Matt McClenahan), which he returns in kind.

Kathy Curran's frisky matchmaker, Frosine, is fun and engaging.

Michelle Bangwa succeeds at making her Mariane sweet and sympathetic.

As the two main servants, Bob King and Evan D'Angeles give every

ounce they have to their fast-paced, physical farce.

These characters all quicken the evening's pulse, and the actors

revel in their assignments. Unfortunately, not all of the play's

moments are intense. Some are tender; some are sad; some delve deeply

into the characters' souls. These moments require a different tactic,

a slowing of the pace, an opening of the actors' emotions. Without

these things, these subtle moments lose their meaning, and this

deprives the play of its full power. These performances are like a

huge chocolate cake: delicious, but so rich that sometimes you just

need a little milk.

One actor, however, changes brilliantly. As Cleante, Harpagon's

dandy of a son, Demore Barnes delivers a performance of humor,

desperation and strength, all the while staying within his foppish

character. Barnes hits all levels of his character: his effete gait,

his razor-sharp wit, his disdain for his oppressive father and his

complete love for Mariane.

Barnes is the whole package, an actor who does not take the easy

way out by turning Cleante into a hip-swishing stooge, but rather

uses the character's traits as a foundation on which to build the

evening's most complete performance. It is a credit to Barnes that,

while he is clearly physically wrong for the part (you'll understand

when you see it), the quality of his performance easily and quickly

overcomes all problems with believability.

Most of the play's action is supplied by an ensemble of three

wonderful actors who turn in hilarious performances with very few

lines. This group is led by Shannon Cobb, who seems to gleefully

orchestrate the play's chaos with fresh, cheerful facial expressions.

Joel Chouinard and Joshua Hardwick also contribute effectively to the

mayhem. These three actors handle their comedy with the grace of

dancers, and they clearly relish their farcical ballet.

Kerry Hennessy's costume work has delivered costumes that

accentuate each character's position in the family, all of which

provide strong counterpoint to Harpagon's all-black attire.

Director Krista Cowan has delivered a satire that combines the

elements of brainless humor and intelligent commentary. The two

elements combine well, especially when Harpagon's wealth is set

against the austere backdrop of Sarah Palmrose's drawer-ridden set.

After all, what is the benefit of wealth if your home is

uncomfortable, and your walls are (literally) falling apart?

Although it is sometimes too intense, "The Miser" reminds us what

is really important: love, family and happiness, for "Where your

treasure is, there your heart is also."

* TIMOTHY TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

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