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From Zombies to Molière

A cult film screenwriter gives us a highly physical Miser.

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Strange, darkly funny, and beguiling, the Berkeley Rep production of Theatre de la Jeune Lune's The Miser begs the question of why we don't see more intensely physical theater in the East Bay. Other than the Ragged Wing Ensemble, some of Les Waters' work, and a lot of stage combat, most of our houses simply don't go as far as the companies that visit. Jeune Leune, Mary Zimmerman, and the actors she brought in for The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and The Secret in the Wings, Culture Clash — why is our most physically daring theater all imported? It's not a question of talent: We have actors with the relevant training, we're up to our neck in clowns, we've got the Dell'Arte school up in Blue Lake and Suzuki and Viewpoints teachers aplenty over in San Francisco. Maybe this reflects a Stanislavskian fixation on text analysis over a more physical approach to building characters. Or maybe we just don't get that many shows that call for elegantly grotesque exaggeration and Olympic-level belching.

In this clever vision of Molière's classic farce about a man so stingy his children consider killing him so they can marry, nameless servants run around behind the set, pop in and out of the doors and around the sides of the stage, and stick curious heads in the windows. There is no real privacy in the miser's home, when he's likely to stick his hand down your pants at any moment to see if you're hiding silverware in your own drawers and the walls are crumbling away. The characters with names — Harpagon, his children, their beloveds, a few fixers — are invested with fabulously twisted physical presence.

Besides the wall-climbing La Flèche, there is Élise with her rabbity voice and turned-out hands; Valère, who ends his declarations with a flamenco-like turn of the arms; the childishly carnal Mariane; and Steven Epp as the title character, his tongue extended like some vile slug. While the voice characterizations are charmingly idiosyncratic, it is the way the actors use their bodies that strikes the imagination. True students of Jacques Lecoq, the Frenchman who reintroduced commedia dell'arte maskwork to the 20th century, the characters are all buffoons in the "dark side of clowning" sense; their fears, fixations, and deficiencies writ large on their bodies.

Director Dominique Serrand and his designers have made other visually stunning, if mysterious, choices, such as draping the front of the set in Visqueen so that the play opens with characters hazy behind it. The lighting is gorgeous and stark, dramatically indicating the passage of time in a space empty of everything but water stains and crumbling plaster. How many different ways can you play with water on the Berkeley Rep stage? It's found another way for Harpagon's ludicrous bath scene. The costumes are absurd, relying heavily on tatters and duct tape; everything is dusty and worn thin.

The Miser was adapted for Serrand and Jeune Lune by David Ball, a name familiar to cult-film aficionados: He wrote 1985's Hard Rock Zombies, a music video that escaped its petri dish. A truly awful film, Zombies features a mediocre hair band that has the bad luck to stay with a murderous family that includes Hitler and tuxedo-clad midgets in fright masks. Death is not enough to stop our heroes from playing their big gig, though it means coming back as zombies and fighting the ghoulish townspeople to rescue the town's sole virgin.

Even with twenty years to live down this sort of thing, how do you go from penning the lines "They're going to screw her to death — is that what you want?" and "Jesse's a big boy; he can take care of himself. Besides, he's dead" to adapting 17th-century French farce? But after the physical artistry, the balls-to-the-wall spirit of Zombies is what makes this fearless adaptation notable, and lines like Valère's insistence that his feelings will remain true "when my fingers have decayed into ribbons of skin around my bones" possible.

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