Decadence is glamorous. This holds true in depictions of the decline of the Roman Empire, the gin-fueled Roaring Twenties, and in Quintessence Theatre Group's slick, sumptuous production of The Misanthrope.
In his 17th-century original, Molière indicted Parisian aristocracy and the hypocritical customs of polite society. British dramatist Martin Crimp's 2009 adaptation takes aim at the overlaps among film, stage, and journalism in 21st-century London. Here, playwright Alceste (John Williams) rails against the shallowness embodied by an entourage of agents and actors, a group whose morality consists of little more than professional and personal exploitation.
As they gulp expensive vodka and whiskey, throw wild period parties, and thump their heads to dubstep rhythms in posh hotel suites, their days consist of giving vicious interviews, filing lawsuits, and bartering false affection for emotional security. It's all very postmodern, a series of stylized encounters lived "in quotes," superbly rendered by Mattie Hawkinson's scathing starlet and Sean Close's creepy, hunchbacked critic.
Crimp condenses Molière's five acts to a single, 100-minute, intermissionless one, crisply paced by director Alex Burns with help from David Sexton's blackouts and nightclub lighting.
This adaptation keeps the rhymed couplet style of Molière's original with a series of clever rhymes (faulted with exalted and too far with fatwa) and splendid insults ("You're like some gorgeous, early, very boring Andy Warhol drawing") that saunter and prance off the cast's tongues with the rhythmic naturalness of a horse's stride.
While Crimp's microcosmic adaptation lacks Molière's grand, indicting sweep, and Williams' titular misanthrope sounds more beleaguered than enraged, Burns adds the signature touches that Quintessence fans adore: Janet Pilla's whimsical choreography, musical interludes, and a sense of cool detachment that here invokes the idea that decadence will always carry a certain flare, even if only the glint of tarnished brass on the ornate hull of a sinking ship.
Presented through May 26 by Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Ave. Tickets: $10-$30. 877-238-5596 or quintessencetheatre.org