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NY Theater Reviews

Photo: Joan Marcus

CLASSICAL GAS

By Robert Cashill

This is not your father's Misanthrope nor even yours, unless you have a strong grounding in the Moliere classic. If you do, you'll appreciate what director Ivo Van Hove's provocative style has done with the classic.

When directing classics, the Flemish provocateur Ivo Van Hove doesn't just break the fourth wall he busts right out of the theater. Definitely not your mother's Misanthrope, this is a plunge into the deep end of the technological trick bag. It registers as a strange, garbled, but absorbing fusion of the culture of surveillance post-9/11 (Michael Haneke's 2005 film Cache, where everyone is peeping on everyone else and nothing is fully resolved, comes to mind) and the shenanigans of the comedian Gallagher, he of the crushed watermelon gags.

 

Van Hove's Alceste, Bill Camp (the bad guy in Coram Boy), gets right into the spirit of the modernist tomfoolery not since Ann-Margret in the film of The Who's Tommy has an actor been asked to wear so much chocolate sauce and ketchup (and yes, watermelon) for his art, and Camp will be doing this most nights through mid-November. Furthermore, once the extremely high-minded Alceste has abased himself with the contents of a picnic lunch on Jan Versweyveld's sleekly inhuman set, he and his Celemine (Jeanine Serralles) sprint onto East Fourth Street, followed by a technician wielding a portable video camera. The audience watches the action unfold on a three-panel video screen mounted on the back wall of the glass box set, as alarmed passers-by watch the performers, who loll around the garbage cans outside the theater for a few minutes. Camp brings a couple of bags back in for a second self-trashing. (He and all of the other black-and-white clad actors are barefoot, by the way, and one hopes they were issued tetanus shots along with their contracts.) Later, with a garden hose, he washes himself off, then in a weirdly tender moment douses the by-now defaced screen, whose constant bombardment of images (still photos, text messages, live glimpses of the supporting cast backstage, etc., all elaborately arranged by video designer Tal Yarden) he seems to loathe but can't really function without in a society that chatters and signals constantly, with little real interaction or communication.

 

This is all a little more iPod-era Beckett than Moliere, and if I hadn't read the play (plot points of which Van Hove refashions) or seen a more traditional staging I'd have been lost. Camp is strong enough to withstand any concept or condiment thrown at him but the other actors give more vaguely defined performances. This should not be your first Misanthrope, not that the two precocious kids sitting behind me weren't amused by all the edgy slapstick. But if you're on firmer footing with Alceste and company going in you're likely to appreciate the many ways in which Van Hove tries to pull the rug out from under you.