Actor John Douglas Thompson is featured in Williamstown Theatre Festival's reading of 'The Misanthrope.'
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Like most places, the Northern Berkshires has two distinct types of personalities, one optimistic, the other pessimistic. Rarely do the two agree.
The playwright Moliere delineated the latter in "The Misanthrope." He describes his character as someone who has a basic distrust of human nature and therefore dislikes and mistrusts other people.
"The Misanthrope's" opposite is the optimist, the humanitarian, the person who believes that adversity can be overcome, that people are essentially good. On Feb. 27, the two will meet at the Clark Art Institute as the Willliamstown Theatre Festival stages a benefit reading of the Moliere play to benefit the newest community charity, Higher Ground.
A Little History
When Tropical Storm Irene blew through Williamstown on Aug. 28, 2011, its flood waters did a great deal of damage to the residents of The Spruces mobile home park. It also rained destruction into the prop and scene shop of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. For days following, some people took a misanthropic view while others came together to do something about it, and prepare for future disasters.
Initially, a loosely organized coalition of churches and individuals began to provide relief for those displaced at The Spruces in the form of food, housing and navigating the maze of conflicting governmental authorities to restore their homes (not always possible) or find new living accommodations. Those efforts are ongoing and crystallized into Higher Ground, a coalition of local people that is proving to be one of the most vital new charities in the Berkshires.
"This was the biggest disaster in Williamstown history," observes James G. Kolesar, director of public affairs for Williams College and a member of the advisory committee to Higher Ground. "More than 300 people were displaced and scattered, and they are not all settled yet. It will take years for them to recover.
"The Williamstown Theatre Festival is such an important part of the community, and their reaching out and supporting our efforts is incredibly important since many think the task has been completed. Their February play reading is important not only for the money it will raise, but also give a boost to the organization's continuing visibility."
The festival suffered its own losses as the Hoosic River flooded its prop and scenery storage facility causing severe damage. The residents of the Spruces and the staff of the festival found they shared common ground.
"Thanks to our supporters we have made great progress in recovering from that disaster," said Jenny Gersten, WTF's artistic director on Wednesday. "Jim Kolesar and I have talked about this a lot, and how Higher Ground was formed to provide assistance to the larger community, so when we began to plan our annual February play reading, it was a no-brainer as to who would be the beneficiary. It may have been serendipitous, but Higher Ground is now a major part of the community. They need ongoing support."
Gersten and her company chose Richard Wilbur's translation of Moliere's classic French comedy for the reading, to be held at Clark Art Institute on Monday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. This is quite a year for the 17th-century playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Moliere, with his comedy "The Learned Ladies" also being staged this month and next at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.
It's going to be a singularly stunning event, for leading a stellar cast at the Clark is John Douglas Thompson, one of the greatest actors of his generation (so sayeth The New York Times, no less) and a cast of Williamstown Theatre Festival alumni, some of whom will travel from New York City, some of whom live here. Gersten splits her time between the city and the Berkshires.
Proceeds from the event will go to Higher Ground to address affordable housing and disaster relief issues in the Northern Berkshires.
The reading will be directed by Lucie Tiberghien ("Geometry of Fire," "The Pavilion"), and will star the aforementioned Thompson ("The Emperor Jones," "Othello") as Alceste with a cast that includes Jon Bass ("The Comedy of Errors," "Sweet Bird of Youth"), Michael Chernus ("Close Up Space," "In the Wake"), Chris Coffey ("Frank's Home," "The Good Wife"), Johanna Day ("Peter and Jerry," "Proof"), Angela Lewis ("Milk Like Sugar," "The Brother/Sister Plays"), Jennifer Mudge ("Dutchman," "Reckless") and Michael Wieser ("The Cherry Orchard," "She Stoops to Conquer").
Thompson is well known to Berkshire audiences for his stunning Richard III at Shakespeare & Company two years ago, and for his numerous other appearances there over the years.
"I think John Douglas Thompson is one of the finest verse actors working today," Gersten said. "He and Lucie have been working on this play off and on for a year and I am excited to see how he makes this role his own. We'll also have a wonderful ensemble of actors to round out this rollicking night of winter fun and are pleased to employ 'The Misanthrope to meet' a philanthropic need for our community."
What The Play Is About
Outraged and disheartened by the vain flattery and calculated duplicity of Paris society, Alceste declares that henceforth he will only speak the truth — no matter what offense it might give. In an ironic twist of fate, Alceste immediately becomes enamored of the young widow Celimene, whose malicious tongue and unceasing coquetry embody all he has proclaimed to detest. Ultimately, it is Alceste who rejects the match when Celimene's confidential letters are disclosed and scathing secrets are revealed. In a rich translation by Berkshires' own poet laureate Richard Wilbur, awarded the Drama Desk Special Award in 1983 for this adaptation, this classic French comedy of manners pointedly punctuates that it is often the wiser course to accept for the best that which cannot be changed for the better.
The reading will be held in the Clark's auditorium. Reservations are recommended and can be made by visiting clarkart.edu or calling 413-458-0524. There is a $10 per person suggested donation that may be made on the evening of the event to benefit Higher Ground. One hopes that some generous souls might add another zero or two to the suggested price.
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