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Eight years ago, I sat behind a one-way mirror as a focus group of longtime Arena Stage subscribers discussed what they liked most about the company. I figured they’d cite the literary sophistication of the scripts, the daring of such Eastern European directors as Liviu Ciulei and Lucian Pintilie, the quality of the acting, and maybe the reliability of subscription seating. The subscribers did, indeed, mention those things, but what they really seemed to love about Arena—what kept them coming back for renewal after subscription renewal—was the extravagance of the physical productions: the burnished woods and luxe fabrics with which Arena’s designers delighted in filling up the stage whenever the company presented classics.

As a fan of theatrical spareness, I was surprised at the weight these steadfast, longtime theatergoers placed on the visual. And I’ve often thought about their response as I’ve watched other area troupes grow their own subscription audiences and increasingly emulate the design sophistication that was once the semi-exclusive province of the area’s first regional theater.

Arena may have gravitated to more modern works in recent years by focusing on the American canon, but it hasn’t forgotten how to deck itself out, and the satin-and-lace contingent is back with a vengeance in the troupe’s period-dress but defiantly modern mounting of Moliere’s The Misanthrope. As the lights dim, seven glittering chandeliers descend from on high toward a floor studded with colorful paintings of Louis XIV, and bewigged and beribboned performers dance a graceful gavotte. The luxury is palpable, the mood serene, the appeal of theatrical sumptuousness instantly understandable.

Then, discord intrudes on this pretty stage picture. The music to which the dancers are swirling turns cacophonous as it mixes with an operatic aria, and those chandeliers continue their descent until they’re so near the ground they interfere with the movement of the dancers. A closer look at the portraits designer William Bloodgood has painted on the floor reveals that most are facial fragments—the eyes, ears, and mouths necessary for the gossip that will drive the play—suggesting that Penny Metropulos’ staging will be a deconstruction of some sort.

In fact, it’s more a reconsideration. Moliere penned a social satire in which a relentless truth-teller named Alceste enrages everyone around him by refusing to engage in the “nauseating game” of flattery and gossip that characterizes 17th-century court life. The pleasantries and artful dodges that his peers regard as simple politeness strike him as insupportably insincere. Ask what he thinks and you get an earful, especially if you’ve just been foolish enough to recite a freshly minted poem. But he has an Achilles’ heel: He’s besotted with a flirtatious gossip named Celimene, who surrounds herself with poseurs and is pretty much the antithesis of everything Alceste stands for. He sees her clearly, knows he can’t change her, and helplessly loves her anyway.

Where most mountings of The Misanthrope play Alceste’s dilemma mostly for laughs, expecting audiences to delight both in the fripperies he deplores and the human frailty he exhibits, Metropulos is intent on mining a darker vein of cruelty. Alceste, as played by Michael Emerson, is too pained in his compulsions to be merely ridiculous. Though the actor bears a slight resemblance to Pee-wee Herman from some angles, he’s never just a clown in this role. His Alceste takes life so seriously—whether panicking at the thought that his beloved Celimene might be untrue or disparaging doggerel penned by an aristocrat from whom he needs a favor—that it’s hard not to worry about him.

And those worries only increase when we’re introduced to Nance Williamson’s Celimene, who appears as calculating as her boyfriend seems guileless. There’s malice in this gossip’s eye. Her wit is meant to sting, whether behind backs, as when she’s dishing dirt with giggling fops (Carl J. Cofield and Lawrence Redmond, attired by costumer Deborah M. Dryden in skirted ensembles that make them look like twin Annie Oakleys), or openly, as when she’s crossing verbal swords with a piously nasty crone (Naomi Jacobson) who can give as good as she gets. Williamson’s Celimene so warms to the task of shredding the crone’s self-esteem that she might almost have trained with the folks in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Some of Misanthrope’s malice is there in the text, which, as translated by Ranjit Bolt, replaces the decorous couplets of the familiar Richard Wilbur version with earthier rhymes and even an occasional profanity. But most of it is in the playing, which falls pretty neatly into two camps at Arena—high-comic earnestness for characters we’re meant to care about, preening superficiality for peripheral figures. Patrick Husted’s Oronte, grinning broadly as he recites a tragic poem, is an amusing buffoon, as is Redmond’s giddily gossiping Clitandre. They can be wounded, but never to the marrow. It’s clear they’ll bounce back to annoy another day.

Alceste and Celimene are another matter. They takes things to heart, as do their friends, Eliante (a gracious Heather Robison) and Philinte (the excellent John Leonard Thompson, a onetime Arena company member who’s been away too long). Metropulos makes sure these central folks are present in three dimensions, and their scenes consequently have an emotional weight that overwhelms the lightness of moments you expect to be played for comedy. Perhaps because the play is directed by a woman, Celimene’s situation is particularly nuanced, with almost equal emphasis on the character’s betrayals and her later distress. Toward evening’s end, the laughs subside as the protagonists reap what they’ve sown. “Your uppance has now come,” someone observes tartly, and it’s the phrasing, not the sentiment, that gets a smile.

This is, in short, hardly a laff riot of a production. Nor is it the full-fledged directorial hijacking of Moliere Pintilie achieved in Arena’s brilliant 1984-1985 Tartuffe, which began in a 17th-century Garden of Eden and ended with the arrival of a civil-defense helicopter in an earthquake-prone present. Rather, Metropulos has conceived Misanthrope as a coolly considered, intelligently wrought contemplation of deceit and its consequences, then conspired with her designers to make it look so gorgeous that even a modern-day Alceste might well be impressed. CP