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.