Moliere as mere mortal

Not knowing a lick of French beyond a few pretentious little Continental phrases such as joie de vivre, I have no idea if Moliere's original script of his sex farce Amphitryon is rote and lethargic, or if celebrated poet Richard Wilbur's translation is the problem.

Having read (though never seen a live performance of) a couple of different translations of Moliere's 17th-century comic masterpieces The Misanthrope and The Imaginary Cuckold--and laughed long and continuously at how this bitch of a comic master could throw shade in rhyming couplets--I know that a potent, relevant version of the playwright's words can be created in English. And having read a few of Richard Wilbur's supple family poems, I can attest that the 76-year-old scribe forms words into images the way fine sculptors infuse wet earth with the shape of life. Additionally, Wilbur has a long and distinguished record of posthumous collaboration with Moliere, having transformed The School for Wives, The Learned Ladies, and The Misanthrope, among others, into saucy, accessible hits for English-speaking audiences.

Theatre Three offers a world premiere of Wilbur's new translation of Amphitryon (subtitled Ye Gods!), a theatrical event of some importance, considering how Wilbur's Moliere versions have earned accolades on the finest stages of the world. But when you peruse a critical biography of Moliere, you learn that Amphitryon is certainly an anomaly, and quite possibly an experiment for the author--who was unfortunate enough to have been quite successful and famous in his own lifetime and was probably prone to make decisions with an eye on the box office as much as on posterity. A sturdy but perfunctory fusion of bawdy Renaissance mistaken-identity comedy and Greek mythology, Amphitryon is never more than merely amusing, because it shows more reverence for its sources than interest in its targets. A high-spirited cast, under the confident direction of Jac Alder, shifts your attention away from a script that never graduates beyond simple diversion.

Maybe Amphitryon is so disappointing because Moliere couldn't apply his trademark venom at the classless monied class of 17th-century France into this tale of Jupiter's attempt to bed the wife of a celebrated general just returning from war. There certainly seems to have been plenty of opportunities, because Moliere took care to incorporate a randy subplot from a 17th-century Italian farce about the sexual escapades of the servant class. What Moliere, and secondarily Wilbur, seem to be doing is showing how good breeding, military rank, and noble ambitions don't exempt one from the same animal absurdities and lustful shenanigans that the "vulgar" lower classes indulged in without the veneer of sanctioned hypocrisy.

This may have been a revelation, and even a subversion, in 1667 Paris, but I contend that the American sense of humor offers a ringing "no, duh!" in reply. With two tablespoons of malice and more than a pinch of hypocrisy, we've always longed to see our social betters smote down by their own self-delusional arrogance and the foolhardiness generated by that birth-bestowed attitude.

Perhaps this is why Moliere stab-fests like The Misanthrope and Tartuffe can bypass the polite, cultured smile most centuries-old "classics" generate today and mine genuine belly laughs with the wicked economy of their withering barbs. Pick up a copy of either at your local bookstore, and give it a spin. You'll discover that, in addition to a catalogue of quotable insults that must have inspired Oscar Wilde, Moliere can stake his claim to true literary greatness by showing the character consequences of a life that has loitered too long in contrarianism. The title character of The Misanthrope may be dead right about all the pettiness, stupidity, and cruelty he sees around him, but there's no consolation in that prize. He's slowly being strangled by his own acute critical faculties, so that his vision is blurred to the benevolent side of humankind.

Amphitryon, on the other hand, is a rather one-dimensional excursion into the jolly side of love's folly, when Jupiter (Lynn Mathis) and his surly messenger, Mercury (Greg Gormley), impersonate celebrated army guy Amphitryon (Greg Dulcie) and his servant, Sousia (Ted Davey), to get at Amphitryon's wife, Alcmena. Sousia's wife, maidservant Cleanthis (Cecilia Flores), approaches this intermingling of the divine and the mortal with an eye toward fulfilling her own dreams of passion.

Probably Amphitryon is most disappointing because very similar comic situations were exploited much more skillfully before and after Moliere--in William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Shakespeare, especially, employed the same schematic plot device--a master and his servant are confused for another master and his servant, and the respective paramours of each continue their sexual attitudes toward the men like business as usual. But while both their works were filled with scoundrels and a few genuinely evil individuals, Shakespeare and Wilde arguably didn't rely as much on the comedy of arrogance as Moliere--there were always plenty of heroically commonsensible, hurting, good-hearted people given their time on the soapbox. Moliere scored his most memorable hits by giving his far more numerous villains enough rope to hang themselves. In relying largely on the myths and comic attitudes of other cultures, Moliere exercises reverence that becomes a form of abdication--he releases his grip from the reins and lets both the Greek classics and popular Italian comedy continue along their well-trod paths.

Nevertheless, Theatre Three enlivens this less than original 17th-century sitcom with some dandy comic flourishes. Ted Davey of the Undermain Theatre proves that he can play the fool like no one else in Dallas, endowing Sousia with just the right amount of pride to make us root for his good intentions. I must say I prefer Greg Gormley dark--his pricklier performances in two Undermain Productions, The Deatherians and The Comedy of Errors, still resonate--but he subsumes himself in Mercury's jovial high jinks with enough unadorned enthusiasm to make me impressed with his range. As the starry-eyed, Mrs. Roper-esque Cleanthis, Cecilia Flores provides the most reasonable voice in the troupe, which, in turn, fortifies her breakdowns of passion. She succeeds at that rarest of Shirley Booth-perfected tricks--the sensual frump.

Amphitryon isn't nearly as bracing as the most misanthropic of Moliere's comedies. Theatre Three cranks up the laugh quotient considerably, but they can't quite extinguish the flickering sense that only the platitudes in this play have survived the ages.

Amphitryon (Ye Gods!) runs through September 21. Call 871-3300.

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Jimmy Fowler