Theatre Review: Moliere

Billy Joel once explained that he would rather "laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints." An insightful point, especially given his later thoughts on the relative merits of uptown girls.

This question - whether it is better to laugh or scowl through life - is at the heart of Tarragon Theatre's superb production of Sabina Berman's Moliere. This is an ambitious, entertaining and ultimately thoughtful play, and one of the most expansive Tarragon shows I've ever seen.

Berman's script details the rivalry between Moliere and Jean Racine, France's greatest comedian and tragedian respectively. Horrified by Moliere's bawdy and exuberant work (and life), Racine schemes with the Archbishop of Paris to destroy the playwright. His plot succeeds, but at the price of Racine's own artisitic ambition. Racine may have won the battle, but Moliere - and the joful sensuosness he represents - ultimately wins the war.

Berman's script is a study in complexity. It is play about French people written by a Mexican playwright and presented in English. It is a play within a play that features snippets of other plays. The show literally swirls with high emotion and continuous action. But somehow, it all works. It is a genuinely funny play with a warm heart and much to say about what is truly valuable in a human life.

There is also a certain timeliness to the script. Moliere's ruminations on the horrors that await a society that abandons joy and pleasure are salient, particularly after a decade of terrorism and morally questionable foreign wars. The play's portrayal of the Archbishop Prefixe- a cold conniver who is utterly unable to find any value in art or artists- could also be read a criticism of a certain Prime Minister who has been cutting arts funding and criticizing artists. Just saying.

On top of Berman's engaging script, Tarragon has mounted a gourgeous production. Charlotte Dean's set and costumes are absolutely incredible, effortlessly accomodating the action while conveying a real sense of character and era. Music is also skillfully woven throughout the production, thanks largely to the charming performance of actor and musical director Mike Ross.

Moliere also features some excellent performances by a high-watt Canadian cast (you'll recognize Cara Pifko from This is Wonderland and Julian Richings from Hard Core Logo and X-Men 3). As Moliere, Richard McMillan does a great job of portraying the playwright's frenetic joy and unapologetic humanity. But for me, Rick Roberts' perpetually overwrought and aggrieved Racine was off-the-chart good. His precision and command of his voice is wonderful to watch.

Occasionally, there is so much going on that the audience gets a little lost. Director Richard Rose has also directed his actors to play their characters broadly, as befits the overall style of the show. Trouble is, these broad performances omit the little emotional details the audience requires to really connect with a character. As a result, the play's rare moments of stillness are weakened, as the viewer doesn't really know how to relate to an off-the-wall character suddenly exploring their quieter emotions.

Still, these are minor complaints against the overall excellence of Moliere. It is as entertaining as it is insightful, and a sumptuous visual experience. Highly recommended.

Moliere continues at the Tarragon Theatre until Dec. 28. For tickets and info, call 416 531 1827 or go here.

Photo: Richard McMillan as Moliere and Rick Roberts as Racine. By Cylla von Tiedemann.

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