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David Collins, centre, as Arthur Edgerton, with members of the company in The Miser.David Hou/Handout

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  • Title: The Miser
  • Written by: Molière, in a new version by Ranjit Bolt
  • Director: Antoni Cimolino
  • Actors: Colm Feore, Alexandra Lainfiesta, Qasim Khan
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: To Oct. 29
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks recommended but not required; reduced-capacity performance available.

Critic’s pick

The Stratford Festival is almost always a late bloomer.

That’s because the complete pleasures of the company’s repertory system, in which actors appear in two or more plays at once, only fully reveal themselves when the final shows in a season open their petals in August.

The Miser, a new updated version of Molière’s 1668 prose comedy about an avaricious old man, is now on the Festival Theatre stage in a production helmed by artistic director Antoni Cimolino that would be fantastically funny all on its own.

But what a theatrical treat, in particular, to be able to watch Colm Feore smile, and smile, and be a villain in a sober and serious Richard III over at the Tom Patterson Theatre, and then follow that up with his unabashedly out-there performance as Molière’s comic monster Harper – who grins from ear to ear at the thought of outliving his children and never having to pass down a dime to them.

These two parts – a man tragically clinging to power, another farcically clutching his cash – are complementary showcases for what a gifted physical performer Feore is.

Having missed his Stratford days as a swashbuckling young star, and introduced to him on screens through characters such as Pierre Elliott Trudeau, I had primarily pegged the now 64-year-old as a cerebral actor with a way with words.

But with his twisted yet agile Richard, and now with a Harper who frantically bounces and sways all over the stage like a spring that’s popped out of his pocket watch, he is showing how he can still command the stage with physicality as much as poetry.

Harper feels he has to be constantly on his toes in order to protect his millions from his children and servants. But as much as the wealthy widower may be a “miser,” he is also – this titular type was already taken by another Molière play – a hypocrite: He wants to marry off his daughter Eleanor (Alexandra Lainfiesta) to a rich man in his 60s for the economic spin-offs, but also intends to remarry a beautiful young woman named Marianne (Beck Lloyd) even though she comes with the financial burden of an elderly mother.

What Harper does not know is that his son, Charlie (Qasim Khan), and Marianne have already fallen in love with each other – and that Eleanor is secretly dating the poor butler Victor (Jamie Mac).

The Miser’s plot revolves around this younger generation’s attempts to get the love matches of their choice approved without being cut off from their inheritances. Though originally programmed for Stratford’s 2020 season, the show could not be more timely – not just because it coincides with the 400th anniversary of Molière’s baptism, but also because it’s enduring satirical relevance is easily evident.

Harper burying money in his backyard while Charlie has to take out predatory loans isn’t all that different really from our current world, where (much of) the older generation lives in multimillion-dollar houses while (some of) their children take out unfathomably big mortgages amid rising interest rates to own a home.

Was it entirely necessary for this version of The Miser, adapted by Ranjit Bolt, whose verse translation of Tartuffe was a hoot at Stratford back in 2017, to be changed to take place in our time, then?

Inserted Canadian references from Joe Fresh to No Frills sometimes bump up against Bolt’s British phraseology – and, occasionally, names dropped from Dr. Oz to (Feore’s co-star from The Umbrella Academy) Elliott Page can feel ingratiating (or, in the case of “Brad and Angelina,” out of tune).

But mostly the updates are amusing and work perfectly fine. The major anachronism – that of a father trying to dictate who his children marry – is neatly neutralized by drawing attention to the artificiality of the situation with ironic references in the dialogue to “this day and age.”

That’s in keeping with the self-aware spirit of Molière’s original play, which has a running meta-theatrical gag, in which characters keep being overheard by others while they are making asides.

Comedy can be hard, but Cimolino’s production keeps (almost) everyone on the same page in performance style, an artful homage to commedia dell’arte. Lainfiesta and Khan, a couple of wiry and witty performers, seem like the spiritual offspring of Feore, while Lucy Peacock has a particularly memorable cameo as a matchmaker in pleather pants.

To return to the joys of the repertory system again for a moment: A loan shark who makes a brief cameo is, in a brilliant bit of cross-casting, played by Michael Spencer-Davis, who is also playing Polonius on the same stage in Hamlet.

Polonius’s famous advice to neither a lender nor a borrower be, when you think about it, is not actually all that wise – there’s good debt and there’s bad debt, and the key is knowing the difference. Likewise, in art, borrowing and lending are not necessary sins.

Bolt may be lending an awful lot of his own language to The Miser here – but, hey, Molière himself borrowed the basis for his play and even certain scenes from the Roman playwright Plautus and a comedy called Aulularia.

Shakespeare was a borrower from Plautus himself – and, in Hamlet, he shouts him out by having Polonius say upon the arrival of the players: “Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light.” That’s not bad dramatic advice, and Cimolino takes it here with this light-as-air delight that gives us Plautus-via-Molière-via-Bolt.