The New York Theatre Workshop's (NYTW) production of The Misanthrope uses an adaptation prepared for a 1975 Broadway staging of Molière's classic, but outside of his sharp barbs aimed at society, tradition takes a back seat to technology. Contemporizing the 17th-century play is nothing new; Off-Broadway in 1999, Roger Rees portrayed the tyrannically sincere Alceste as a playwright, bitterly enthralled with Uma Thurman's boldface name of a Célimène. This new Misanthrope, however, doesn't just break the fourth wall of audience expectations, it breaks right out of the theatre and erupts onto the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Known/notorious for unconventional productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Hedda Gabler, the director, Flemish provocateur Ivo van Hove, always asks his design team to think well outside of the box. The Misanthrope unfolds on a sleekly modernist, nearly featureless set, with illumination to match both the work of production and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, who has collaborated with van Hove for 20 years. Emilio Sosa's costumes are a rigorous black and white, except for the shoes — there are none of those, as the cell phone-carrying actors walk (and run) barefoot, on and off the stage. Audio designer Raul Vincent Enriquez pipes in chilly-sounding cover versions of songs like The Beatles' “Across the Universe.” Observing it all in realtime are three video screens — built into the back wall of the partly windowed set — which also display still photos and text messages from Célimène.
New York-based video designer Tal Yarden has worked with van Hove since an Amsterdam staging of Rent, one not unexpectedly quite different from the production that originated at NYTW before transferring to Broadway. “It came together so quickly,” says Yarden. “We were going to work on Molière's The Miser, but a casting opportunity arose, and the theatre hadn't done The Misanthrope before, so we changed course. The idea was that this production would be a laboratory of social interaction, an ambiguous and antiseptic space, something like a focus group setting or maybe an interrogation room. The screens are a kind of mirror for exaggerated close-ups. There would be a couple of cameras documenting everything that went on and people examining what was going on, which led to the idea of the live cameras.”
Techs wielding “cheap, off-the-shelf” Sony HD video cameras are an integral part of the show. “The actors rehearsed with the cameras to see how they could work with and against them,” Yarden says. “But we also rehearsed the operators, whose activities have to seem spontaneous at every performance.” The cameras are not bolted to a tripod; the techs range freely throughout the theatre, shooting both backstage and the audience as the images are fed through the 55“ Hitachi plasma screens.
In the show's most memorable moment, the self-abasing Alceste (Bill Camp) — who, in a van Hove touch, has covered himself in chocolate sauce, ketchup, and watermelon — and Célimène (Jeanine Serralles) flee the theatre for the cold comfort of garbage cans on East Fourth Street. A tech is in pursuit, filming everything. “The cameras had already been backstage, so it was only natural that they go outside,” Yarden says. “It's such a taut play in that pure and simple space, so it's a shock to the system when it leaves the theatre. The operators know what they need to shoot and how to work with the occasional passerby.”
In another surprising sequence, Alceste defaces the screens, which are frozen with an image of Célimène, an action she witnesses. Later, he tenderly washes them off with a hose. Says Yarden, “It's horrifying when she sees what he's done and so touching when he cleans them. Alceste deeply loves Célimène but finds it despicable how she represents herself, her image, to the world. These kinds of ideas are why I keep working with Ivo.” As for the battered screens, the designer says, “They're behind heavily sealed Plexiglas® and are well-cared-for.”
The one problem with the screens, “which don't battle with lighting, like projections,” is that they are not for theatrical use. “They were an incredible value for their size but are geared for residences and for playback off DVD players and cable boxes,” Yarden says. “They take an HDMI signal but can't play back a computer-generated signal, which was a huge issue for us. I made a video for all the text messages and the other images. Various software eventually made it work.” Yarden was assisted — “a great privilege for me,” he says — by Keith Skretch.
Versweyveld's set was inspired by Molière's text. “He wrote a play about human behavior and relationships that relates to any period,” says Jian Jung, the associate set designer. “So we designed a closed room like a laboratory where scientists can observe the animals,” she says. In this case, the audience is peering in at some rather peculiar behavior indeed, and the video cameras allow additional angles of observation.
To add to the laboratory feel, the height of the space was compressed with four rows of five rectangular fixtures with fluorescent tubes that hang low over the stage, adding a cold, white light. The exposed theatrical rig, primarily ETC Source Fours, sits higher above the playing area, with additional positions on pipes along the side brick walls of the theatre. The only “furniture” on stage is a large platform stage-right that serves as seating and as the table for the junk-food banquet, with a bench running along the stage-right glass wall. The center stage is left clear, as there is quite a bit of physical activity and actors rolling about on the floor, and, eventually, the stage is completely littered with “prop trash” that Alceste carries in from the street and strews everywhere.
In addition to the triple video screens set into the upstage wall, right of center, the side walls of the set are made of real glass, with the cameras often used on tripods on the outside, while the video screens are protected behind Plexiglas. “We wanted something non-glare in front of the images, and yet non-glare glass was too expensive,” Jung says. “The entire set is waterproof,” she adds, pointing out that the floor and upstage floor are covered in a gray vinyl surface, much like a gym floor, that can be easily hosed down. The stage crew cleans up after the show with buckets, mops, and squeegees, wearing rubber gloves and boots, directing the water to a drain built into the set upstage-left.
Sosa notes that the black suits worn by all the actors are “like a uniform, but each one is not identical. At the beginning of rehearsal, they were all the same, and then we moved into more individual designs based on the characters,” he says. “The fact that they are barefoot adds to the stripped-away nature of the production, and there were no shoes that would withstand the production.” The clothes all had to be washable. “The choices were adjusted once we knew what the food actually was,” Sosa adds.
The Misanthrope is scheduled to close this month, but Yarden, who is working with van Hove on a Wagner Ring cycle for the Flemish National Opera, says the show will go on, as timelessly as ever. “It's universal and absolutely current. It defies the idea of being part of a particular era and is a mirror of our everyday lives.”