The most recent offering in Oasis Theatre Company's long line of well-presented classical works is Molière's The Miser, a new translation of the 17th-century French playwright's comedic opus. In less than two years in Santa Fe, Oasis, helmed by Artistic Director Brenda Lynn Bynum (who also directs and appears in this production) and Managing Director James Jenner (who plays the titular miser himself), has established itself as a consistent and competent company, and The Miser continues the tradition, though perhaps with a few hiccups.
The play is a relatively simple comedy-of-errors kind of thing. The miser, Harpagon, has two kids, Élise (Joey Beth Gilbert) and Cléante (Mark Westberg). Élise is in love with Valère (David Carter, who also served as translator and dramaturg for this script), and Cléante favors Mariane (Zoe Burke). Problem is, Harpagon also favors but-she's-the-age-of-his-children Mariane, and has already decided that Élise is to marry the wealthy but-he's-the-age-of-her-father Anselme (Steve Oakey).
Add into the mix that Cléante is trying to bust out of his familial bonds by procuring a large sum of money, a mysterious shipwreck back in the day that plays into things strongly toward the end (and we bet you can guess how), and a few middlemen whose awkward translations muck up relations even further, and you have the recipe for a classic farce.
Speaking of translations, Carter's new interpretation of this work (which he completed between October and December of last year) is mostly enjoyable, but occasionally offered a few head-scratchers. I get the sense that Carter didn't trust his audience quite enough, given some of his choices.
In most cases, Molière's original 1660s-style dialog is preserved (think sentences that start with "alas"), but occasionally, characters employed starkly 20th-century phrases that pulled me out of the scene. (Think "scram," "You've got to be kidding me," or a reference to Republicans and Democrats as an example of opposites.) I speak no French and thus haven't read the original script of The Miser, but my guess is that Molière used contemporary phrases that roughly equaled these in our current lexicon—and rather than trust his audience to gather from context what the outdated or unfamiliar words might mean, Carter opted to make anomalous modern choices.
It wasn't enough to make the show unenjoyable, but it (as well as a few actors choosing a French accent, where others did not) has stayed in my head as a curiosity.
Beyond the translation questions, however, the production itself was engaging and entertaining. The actors maintained an almost impossibly high energy level, certainly throughout the first act (the second act, while still fun, occasionally drooped), with no mismatched volumes or zing. It was refreshing to see everyone onstage care just as much as everyone else.
Particularly enjoyable to watch is Gilbert, the fresh young daughter of the miser. She is never not Élise; I often found myself ignoring the principal action onstage to watch her facial expressions on the sidelines. Never big enough to steal the scene, or even be slightly distracting, her nuanced portrayal is definitely worth attention even when she's not in the spotlight.
Similarly, Noah Segard, who plays three small roles throughout this production, is another actor whom I noted as giving a foreground-worthy performance in the background. He considers his roles carefully, imbues even small parts with rich context and history, and has proven a capable actor in a number of productions I've caught in the last year. It is the casting of careful creatures like him that make Oasis' shows fractal both in and out with relevancy and depth.
Jenner's miser is a highly cartoony guy, and slapstick blocking and silly humor that hovers at a 75-percent success rate makes his interactions with characters like Yannig Morin's expressive La Flèche bop right along. Westberg, as well, remains his animated and eloquent self, and is enjoyable to see cross the stage. (And that wig … woof!) I used the word "foppish" in my notes, always happy to watch an actor who conjures 10th-grade vocabulary words from a labyrinthine brain.
A portrayal that gave me a little pause, however, was Carter's Valère. Carter told castmate Burke in a Broadway World story that he's perhaps "not the best actor," and while his acting was perhaps fine, his actual speech caught me up.
The cadence with which Valère spoke smacked of someone who read the text closely and thought of how someone would say it in the mind, perhaps, but not how someone would say it in real life—so then, realizing that Carter had just spent 90 hours translating the script on the page, the awkward inflection made more sense. I also wished he'd slow down just a bit, enunciate more, and cheat out. The kind of Acting 101 stuff that everyone claims to have learned as a child but that we are constantly still teaching adults; Carter is by no means alone in these slip-ups in theater at large. Further, the Oasis Theatre's construction of walls covered by thick curtains serves to heavily muffle sound—usually not a problem in such a small house, but it caused a few issues here.
Visually, as ever for Oasis, The Miser is a pleasure. Bynum served as production designer for this show, and one simple moment nearly took my breath away: As Gilbert stood center stage, the colors in her exquisite (and huge) dress caught and mirrored those of a visual line created by satiny background curtains. It became clear then that nothing was an accident. Choices of color, line and object fade to nothing when they are done well, and I urge audience members to make special note of the care with which this, and all Oasis shows, are crafted.
While perhaps less perfect than other Oasis productions (if they are ever able to top The Good Doctor I'll eat my hat, but I also bet they will do it eventually), The Miser is a worthy evening at the theater full of laughter and visual delights. Enjoy the conservatively employed meta references, too, when actors break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience, inviting us into an enjoyable world.
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays March 29-April 6; 3 pm Sundays March 31 and April 7. $27. Oasis Theatre, 3205 Calle Marie, Ste. A, 917-439-7708; tickets here.