Merely Players condenses little-known Molière play

There’s a clichéd idiom that says the only certainties are death and taxes. However, the theater often tries to defy this turn of phrase by reviving plays from centuries ago. Despite the passing of time, we are still able to bring a contemporary relevance to words that have passed through many actors’ lips. Regardless of how many times these stages have been set and struck, there’s always something new to discover.

Merely Players will be presenting an adaptation of Molière’s 1670 satire, “The Would Be Gentleman, or Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.” Directed by Raleigh Smith ’18, this production will be performed in the Susan Stein Shiva Theater on April 5, 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. With a runtime of a little over an hour, the play follows the Monsieur, a bourgeois who aims to be accepted as a member of the aristocracy.

Smith first happened upon Molière’s lesser-known play by chance in a collection of the French playwrights’ works he bought at a library book sale: “I was flipping through it on the beach and I read ‘The Would be Gentleman.’ The first half is just so bizarre and different from the second half that I knew I needed to put on the first half.”

Expanding on why he chose to narrow the scope of the play by removing the second half, Smith continued: “The second half of the play is about him trying to find a husband for his daughter. It has inherent sexism and very blatant racism, so I decided to cut it out. I didn’t feel in a position to do anything that’s not already being done to challenge those positions. I felt that with this first half of the play I could really take more of a closer look at how education works in a more capitalist society.”

After previously directing a production of William Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens” through Merely Players in Fall 2016, Smith took a very minimalist approach to the design in hopes of allowing the actors to have more freedom in their roles. Instead of giving the actors line interpretations or projecting his vision of the characters onto the actors, which is a bad habit for some directors, Smith put the power into the actors’ hands.

Henry McKenzie ’18, who plays the Monsieur, expounded on the benefits as an actor of working with Smith’s style: “That’s definitely what I enjoy as a directorial style and is something I have a lot of synergy with. Especially in comedic roles, I like to improvise and try to surprise myself and my fellow actors. Raleigh has been very encouraging of that. Obviously it’s contextually dependent, but I think that approach allows you to really grow more than a more rigid directorial style. He still will give feedback on what he liked and what he didn’t like, which gives you a guided hand when you are experimenting.”

McKenzie, who has performed in several of Merely Players’ Shakespearean productions, spoke about the additional liberation inherent in performing a translated play: “It’s interesting and in some ways it’s freeing. Everything’s translated and because it’s translated, that does give you a bit more leeway to play with the lines as you want, since this already not in the original wording. It’s less sacrosanct and you have more of an ability to make your own translation of the lines as you wish.”

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, who went by the stage name Molière, is considered to be one of the greatest French playwrights of all time. Flourishing in the mid-17th century, his plays often tackled social issues through biting satire and his theater troupe received international acclaim. Many of his works, such as “Tartuffe” and “The Misanthrope,” still receive frequent revivals.

Breanna Piercy ’21, in the role of Master Music, will be appearing in her first student-theater show at Vassar. Piercy related how different the experience was from theater in high school: “It’s surprising that it’s just being run by students. In high school, it definitely did not seem like kids could have done the whole thing, but now that I’m here, it’s very impressive to be around people who are so creative and so good at leading and getting things together.”

Because Piercy participates in other time-consuming activities such as the comedy group HEL, she has appreciated the schedule working on this play: “It’s a good group. We’re all a bunch of nerds, so we can nerd out about stuff. Also, it’s been nice not having to go too late. It’s been a good break just having that tiny bit of rehearsal at night and getting to work with some really nice people.”

Molière’s original production of “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” was presented in 1670 before the court of Louis XIV at the Château de Chambord before transferring to the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. Conceived as a comédie-ballade, mixing Molière’s words along with music by Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and a ballet piece, the cast of the original production featured Molière in the title role and Armande Béjart, one of the most popular actresses in 17th-century France and Molière’s spouse, as Lucile.

Despite the legendary elements of the first production, this is one of Molière’s least-produced plays, possibly for its generally absurd style and the problematic nature of the second act. However, this play has rubbed shoulders with many great figures across the Arts. In 1912, German composer Richard Strauss adapted the play into a score for a production directed by innovative director Max Reinhardt that incorporated a Commedia dell’Arte troupe. George Balanchine, considered the father of American ballet, choreographed a modern version of the play with Jerome Robbins and featuring Rudolf Nureyev as Cléonte to accompany Strauss’s music in 1979. In 2005, French music ensemble Le Poème Harmonique performed the play in completion, the first time since Molière’s original production, adopting musical and theatrical traditions from 17th Century France, including having candlelight be the only lighting source.

Smith explained how he pared off the play’s themes to be even more contemporarily relevant: “It was written as the bourgeois class was just starting to rise, so Molière wrote it as a slam on the bourgeois class, but in defense of the aristocracy. My goal is to re-appropriate that, still keeping the damning of the bourgeois class but turning it so it’s not a defense of the aristocracy.”

While this is Merely Players’ only full-length production this semester, the student theater org will be hosting their annual Shakespeare Festival later in the semester.

McKenzie acknowledged the dated context of the play and how its content may still be relevant: “There is a broader cultural commentary which, although it was intended for then-contemporary France, I think it still does speak a lot about the pursuit of status and perhaps the intrinsic problems in that pursuit. But I as an actor am mostly trying to entertain. If nothing else, I hope everyone has a laugh and enjoys what they see onstage.”

Even though the world we live in is very different from the one Molière wrote in, there are still universal truths to any great piece of work that allow us to consider them as part of the tradition. Molière’s play has seen numerous renditions across various mediums. Each one served their purpose then. And this one serves its purpose now.

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