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Court’s ‘Misanthrope’ mocks eternal quirks of human behavior

Celimene (Grace Gealey foreground) is pursued by Oron(A.C. Smith left) Alceste (Erik Hellman) Court Theatre’s producti“The Misanthrope.” | Michael Brosilow

Celimene (Grace Gealey, foreground) is pursued by Oronto (A.C. Smith, left) and Alceste (Erik Hellman) in Court Theatre’s production of “The Misanthrope.” | Michael Brosilow photo

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When: Through June 9

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis

Tickets: $45-$65

Info: (773) 753-4472;

Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Updated: June 21, 2013 6:16AM

To begin, a few questions prompted by “The Misanthrope,” the work of 17th century French playwright Moliere, whose comedies might just be a great deal darker than you think:

1. Would you prefer to live in a society in which politeness has turned into a mockery of itself, with everyone kissing the posterior of everyone else in order to win favor and maintain status, and where honesty and authenticity are the casualties, and hypocrisy is the name of the game? Or, would you rather exist in a world of brutal and often hurtful honesty, where everything people really think is expressed without the slightest filtering process?

2. Is there no middle ground in all this?

3. Must all the rules be upended when romantic love is part of the equation? And without some delicacy and civility, can love even exist?

These are the questions written in boldface in director Charles Newell’s production of “The Misanthrope” — the first of two plays (“Tartuffe” opens June 20) being presented in his 2013 Moliere Festival, and the official start of Court Theatre’s role as the Center for Classic Theatre at the University of Chicago.

Much has been made of the fact that Newell has broken with tradition and cast both Moliere plays with mostly black actors. As it turns out, race is a non-issue. This is a play about the very essence of human behavior and social interaction, and the actors here are skilled and stylish. If anything, it is a single brilliantly finessed example of drag that really grabs attention here.

At the center of the play are two extremists who are powerfully drawn to each other but clearly far too volatile and rigid to ever marry. Alceste (Erik Hellman, just right as an alienated intellectual) is the man who believes in honesty at all costs, although even his best friend, the level-headed Philinte (a most likable Kamal Angelo Bolden), thinks it has become a twisted way of separating himself from the rest of the world. And wouldn’t you just know it, Alceste is besotted by Celimene (Grace Gealey. sexy, spirited and aptly self-involved), a socially astute young coquette with countless admirers who is all lovey-lovey in public, but ready to dish insults with abandon in private.

One of Celimene’s suitors is the imposing Oronte (a winningly nuanced turn by A.C. Smith), whose love sonnet is critically ripped to shreds by Alceste. The more laughable poseurs are two minor nobleman: the poufy Clitandre (Michael Pogue) and the self-satisfied Alcaste (a very funny Travis Turner). But Celimene’s true nemesis is an older woman — the elegant, dowager-like Arsinoe (played so brilliantly and with such snap by Allen Gilmore that many in the audience had to do double-takes before they caught on to the gender-bending).

Patrese D. McClain brings a lovely touch of gravitas to Eliante, Celimene’s truly honest cousin. And Elizabeth Ledo and Desmond Gray are the subtly all-seeing servants.

“The Misanthrope” was presented here last season by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre under the title “The School for Lies,” in an adaptation by David Ives that was verbally hip and brilliant, but ultimately exhausting. The classic Richard Wilbur translation used at Court is scintillating and modern without being flamboyant, and fits the play’s surprisingly non-comic conclusion.

Visually, “The Misanthrope” could not be more splendid, with Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes (Baroque Euro-trash chic with variations of metallic black heavily embellished with gold). They are paired with John Culbert’s high-end brothel decor — far from accidental in this play about a society with twisted values.

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