The Misanthrope at ASU Theatre: Everyone Sucks, Except -- Nope, Everyone Sucks

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I have to say right away that the heading above is a summary of the plot and theme of this play, not a critique of the acting in the current production of Lauren Marshall's translation/adaptation of Molière's The Misanthrope by the ASU School of Theatre and Film. The writing and direction were much, much worse than the acting, which is only as bad as the unpredictable talents of any given group of current university students can make it.

Overeducated Friend sat quietly beside me at the beginning of intermission. "Do you need anything?" she finally asked. "I think I'd like a Snickers or something." Not only do I not need anything, I don't remember ever seeing a concession stand in the Galvin Playhouse. It turns out there isn't one. There is a guy selling hot dogs, chips, and soda outdoors by the DJ and live-painting show that is still going on very enthusiastically when we leave later, still ground down into polite semi-silence, but O.E. has lost her appetite by then.

The Misanthrope's about Alceste, a guy who eschews the privileges of hanging around with movers and shakers, because he finds them all so disgustingly false and backstabbing. When asked to speak his mind (and, also, often without having been asked), Alceste pulls no punches. He's sometimes downright gleeful about his reputation and the growing list of people he's pissed off.

You can see why, back in the '90s, Marshall thought the tale would be a good fit for the world of ill-tempered indie music. In fact, Marshall's Alceste and his girlfriend, Célimène, were loosely based on Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, and songs were written to supplement the dialogue, which remains in rhyming couplets.

I didn't see any of the productions that were mounted with Marshall's original concept. The ASU one has transplanted the musical genre from grunge to black metal, and Jason William Steffen, who also stars as Alceste, wrote new music for the songs. It doesn't make a big difference, as far as I can tell.

This is a very wordy play, and between Marshall's subpar verse, young actors who can do only so much with it, and an overall sheen of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink desperation, what isn't lost in tedium is confused by choices like having the set contain a stage, a bar, a hot tub, and a lounge/party area. Okay, so it's a club? No, they live there. Okay, so it's a kind of counterculture mansion. But why is there a pit containing a token number of lackluster, uncoordinated groupies? Sigh.

Undoubtedly, we're not intended to get bogged down in details like that, but because the action never really takes off, and the spectacle remains less than spectacular, one's mind wanders. The musical numbers are "Let's stop everything, pick up the instruments, and do this song" moments, the story's climax is just another whiny argument, and I'm unsure what happened at the end (which I realize may be on purpose) -- either the mini-mob literally devoured Alceste, or it was something symbolic, or it was something else altogether.

I did love Wrara Plesoiu's inventive, tongue-in-cheek, multilevel set, and Connor McAlpine performed subtly and solidly as Alceste's friend, the easygoing, rational Philinte. And I was really looking forward to the show, so if you have been as well, I don't want to say you shouldn't go. Just accept that you might see some interesting ideas fizzle . . . because life and art are like that. And bring your own snacks. The Misanthrope continues through Sunday, December 4, at Paul V. Galvin Playhouse, 51 East 10th Street in Tempe. The production contains nudity, mature language and themes. For tickets, $8 to $16, click here or call 480-965-6447.

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