Molière, Turning 400, Can Still Surprise

In an anniversary year for the playwright, new productions in the Paris region show why his work still appeals to myriad audiences.

PARIS — “I’m in shock,” a teenage boy sitting near me declared when the lights went up on a recent performance of Molière’s “The Forced Marriage” at the Comédie-Française, France’s oldest theater company. “It was really sexual,” one of his schoolmates told her friends on the way out. “It’s not the kind of stuff you should show.”

Does Molière, the 17th-century comedy master and doyen of French playwrights, really still have the power to surprise? As France celebrates the 400th anniversary of his birth, a flurry of new productions suggests that he can — and, equally, that his work can easily feel old-fashioned.

In both cases, the guilty party isn’t Molière. Wildly different takes on his work have been on show in the Paris region: While the Comédie-Française, whose 2022 program is entirely devoted to Molière, has invested in dark, offbeat productions, “Molière Month,” a yearly theater event run by the city of Versailles, has delivered traditional gowns and breeches, to slightly dull effect.

No one could accuse Louis Arene’s version of “The Forced Marriage,” presented on the Comédie-Française’s small Studio stage, of being boring. Sganarelle, the stock central character — a deluded man seeking marriage with a much younger woman — is practically a Beckettian presence early on, looking puzzled on the plain gray stage and muttering lines from other Molière plays. (You could tell the Molière buffs in the audience from the scattered laughs these elicited.)

Arene works hard to inject a contemporary sense of absurdity into what is an average play, first presented in 1664 as a three-act comédie-ballet, a hybrid genre combining spoken dialogue with danced and sung scenes, and streamlined into a one-act work four years later. In this production, all the characters are heavily powdered and wear bald caps as well as prosthetics; the size and form of their fake skulls and visible body padding were among the elements drawing cries of disgust from the adolescents in the audience.

The five-person cast milks it all, turning standard marriage jokes into ominous physical comedy, verging at times on horror fare. (Vomit and severed body parts are involved.) Gender switches among the main roles, an increasingly frequent device on France’s stages, convincingly heighten the weirdness: In addition to Julie Sicard, who is barely recognizable as Sganarelle, Arene has cast Christian Hecq, a bald, 58-year-old character actor, as Dorimène, the young woman Sganarelle seeks to marry.

Hecq doesn’t go for cheap laughs; on the contrary, he is serious and quite sensual as Dorimène. While Molière’s female characters typically resist fiercely when asked to wed suitors they don’t like, Dorimène actually isn’t against the marriage, seeing an opportunity to get rich and reunite with her lover once Sganarelle is dead. (Ultimately, Sganarelle backs out because he fears being a cuckold.)

Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Simultaneously, Hecq has been present on the Comédie-Française’s main stage in a very different capacity, as the co-director of a stunning staging of Molière’s “The Bourgeois Gentleman” with his partner, Valérie Lesort, in which he stars as Monsieur Jourdain, the would-be gentleman. (It means that on some days, Hecq leaves Dorimène behind at 7:30 p.m., slips into Monsieur Jourdain’s costume and steps onto a different stage an hour later.)

“The Bourgeois Gentleman” arguably cements Hecq’s place as one of the Comédie-Française’s most category-defying and valuable artists. With his gruff voice, small frame and clownlike gift for physical exaggeration, he could easily have been typecast as a commedia dell’arte servant. Yet his emotional range — willing to be thoroughly ridiculed one second, the picture of relatable heartbreak the next — is evident in his Monsieur Jourdain, the clueless bourgeois who wants nothing more than to be accepted as an aristocrat.

And together with Lesort, he has emerged as part of a duo of stage magicians, deploying old-fashioned tricks and visual imagination. In “The Bourgeois Gentleman,” that means flying swords, a life-size embroidered elephant and animated goat heads that sway to one of the songs. Since this play also started life as a comédie-ballet, the original score, by Lully, has been revisited here by Mich Ochowiak and Ivica Bogdanic, in a vigorous style inspired by Balkan music. The costumes, by Vanessa Sannino, are luxuriously eccentric: Françoise Gillard, in the role of a marchioness, looks like a fabulous golden beehive.

“The Bourgeois Gentleman” and “The Forced Marriage” each steer Molière toward crepuscular absurdity. Like Ivo van Hove’s “Tartuffe,” which opened the Comédie-Française’s Molière extravaganza in January, both productions are mostly designed in shades of gray or black, a departure from the colorful palette that is customary for the playwright’s comedies.

This monochromatic approach helps the Comédie-Française orient itself toward the contemporary even as it celebrates its founding father — something that does not seem to concern Versailles’s “Molière Month,” a likable event founded in 1996. Many of its performances, staged around the town outside Paris where Molière presented a number of his plays to Louis XIV, are free, and feature a mix of professional actors and amateurs.

As a result, the quality varies significantly. A staging of “The Impostures of Scapin,” directed by Carlo Boso and starring first-year theater students, drew many families with children to a local park on a sunny Sunday afternoon, though the laughs were few and far between. The fact that a number of roles were played in Italian didn’t help, although the result was easy enough to follow. The audience reacted more readily to anachronistic jokes — like a reference to the film “Titanic” — than to Molière’s lines.

Marc-Olivier Carion/City of Versailles

That wasn’t surprising, since Molière’s gallery of stock characters, heavily influenced by commedia dell’arte, was of its time, despite some innovations and the social commentary he wove into many plays. The opening production of the “Molière Month,” performed outdoors in a courtyard opposite the palace of Versailles, fared better. The director, Anthony Magnier, opted to stage “The Versailles Impromptu,” a rarely seen 1663 play that is cheekily autobiographical.

The main character is Molière himself, struggling to put together a show with his reluctant actors. They play was written as a response to his critics, and is difficult to render today, with its parody of a rival company’s actors, which presumably had greater resonance in the 17th century.

In a post-show speech, Magnier said the cast had rehearsed the show in just nine days, and it acquitted itself well, with Elisa Benizio a vivid highlight. “The Versailles Impromptu” allowed the text to take center stage, with assorted period costumes and next to no props and sets, yet the play itself didn’t feel especially enlightening or satisfying.

On the other hand, when Molière is treated merely as the canvas for a director’s vision, as in some of the Comédie-Française’s productions this year, the inner logic and wit of his dialogue don’t always survive. Does it matter? Perhaps Molière’s true triumph is that four centuries on, his work remains malleable enough to appeal to radically different crowds.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Directed by Christian Hecq and Valérie Lesort. Comédie-Française, through July 21.
Le Mariage Forcé. Directed by Louis Arene. Comédie-Française, through July 3.
Mois Molière. Versailles, various venues through June 30.

Source: Theater -


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