Downtown Manhattan has seen some weird shows in its day, but Ivo Van Hove’s new version of The Misanthrope is an honest-to-goodness avant-garde spectacle in which almost all the wacky stuff works. Molière’s 17th-century rhymed comedy about crossed lovers and social fakers is reimagined by Van Hove and company with a serious mission: to out the truth. And in this setup, you can run, but you certainly can’t hide. Handheld cameras lurk behind translucent walls and follow the actors across the stage. A video conferencing screen, à la Madison Avenue, shows us close-ups and other intimate angles to which theater audiences are not usually exposed, and the sleek office set is lit from above by fluorescents — leaving little room for secrets. Through images both life-size and enlarged, a stunning and dangerous reality takes shape. Insincerity is rooted out immediately. One false look and you’re dead.
Standing at the front of this line of fire is Bill Camp in the title role, delivering the performance of a lifetime. He brings astonishing depth and strength to Alceste, whose antisocial tendencies are hardly those of a cantankerous old crank. He is a self-detained prisoner of war, caged by his artistic success, which has landed him among a lot of glad-handing phonies and media whores, and tortured by an animal passion for a young girl, a social butterfly who is his opposite in every way. Camp’s anti-hero is both a self-destructive blackguard and a sainted martyr. The director uses him as the mouthpiece of today’s burnt-out modern man, railing against the superficiality of success, the indignity of the moneyed classes and the breakneck speed with which people are accepted and rejected each day.
Camp’s performance also reminds us that, at some point, a good actor has to get dirty. He demonstrates this quite literally, performing most of the play encrusted in matter, forcing us to see not just a character, but both an actor and a character subjecting himself to a revolting ordeal. As awful as it is to witness, this self-sacrifice is the most effective of Van Hove’s decisions, representing a marriage of verity and absurdity, of actor and audience. Life tramps mercilessly on in this drama, and there is no rest — not even backstage. The cameras follow actors into the green room, into dark corners, and into places performers don’t usually go. The characters are thus made alive beyond the reach of proscenium-bound players, allowing the audience a rare and at times excruciating sympathy.
Where the production gets sticky is in its urge to make the old feel abundantly new, mixing the rhythms of text messaging with Molière’s syllabic verse. This is the Achilles’ heel of all ultra-modern adaptations. Crucial parts of the story get lost when we hoist a language play out of its more formal era and plunk it headlong into 21st-century whatever-ese. The resulting cacophony at times overpowers the narrative, turning innovation into confusion.
In a recent New York Times article, Van Hove said, “I discovered something I didn’t really know about Molière, namely that his plays are mostly misunderstood as comedies.” The Amsterdam-based director has certainly tapped into Molière’s dark side, turning Alceste into a virtual Hamlet. And though it wouldn’t have hurt him to have left in one or two laughs, you have to admire his Bergmanesque take on the French parlor play. Perhaps it’s the Northern European in his blood — the dark winter that ran through the veins of Strindberg, Munch and Goethe. The man can’t help but add a hearty dose of classical-style suffering to the enjoyment of our mega-pixel world. Whatever his motives, this is the modern theater, as cohesive as it is wild, as optimistic as it is mechanic. And though it may not be altogether pleasant, its voice commands attention, and its doctrine is unforgettable.