The 400th birthday of the acclaimed French playwright, Jean-Baptiste Moliere is being celebrated this year all over the Francophone world. That includes Kenya where, at Alliance Francaise, Moliere’s play, The Miser, L’Avance, or Mstinji, premiered this past week, more than 350 years since it first opened in Paris in 1668.
Moliere invented the French farce, that sophisticated form of comedy that combines irony, mockery, and hilarity with a melodramatic storyline.
But it is doubtful whether the French equivalent to the British bard, Shakespeare would have recognised his play if he’d been resurrected to come see the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio’s interpretation of the comedy.
Granted the art studio was given a difficult task when they were invited to put on The Miser in a style that would be relevant to a youthful 2022 audience (since many Kenyan French-language students would attend).
They were further required to retain the relish and fun-loving farcical style of the original while also being true to the original plot.
Certainly, the language had to be changed since the English translation was also full of awkward wording that even English speakers might not understand. So, what to do?
It was up to the studio team, including the show’s director Stuart Nash and members of the cast to transform the play, making it as much of a modern-day romantic comedy as a French farce.
But it worked well. Kenyan students who came by the bus load were flabbergasted by what they saw. Many had never been to the theatre before so they got the treat of seeing a set design that was built to reach the actual ceiling of the stage.
It had been painted up to the sky. One could even look out the 'Miser'’s presidential windows and see the garden filled with flowers, grass, and trees. Even the floors got a checker-board paint job, while the sofa set was gold-leaf.
And while the décor of the 'Miser'’s office combined a look that resembled both the Oval Office and Kenya’s State House, this Miser, General Makasi (Sam Psenjen) presides over an unspecified post-colonial land (but which many allusions to places we know).
Our general is renowned for being super-stingy. But the focus of the story is not only on him and his greedy guile. It is also on his children’s strategic planning, on how to fulfill their need to be with the one they love when they know their dad will disapprove.
As the show opens, we quickly see Elsie’s (Sandra Wambui) plight. She adores Francis (Dadson Gakenga) and he loves her too. Yet he’s a lowly servant in State House, so she is also concerned with what social media will say about the match.
More importantly, she knows their plan will not fly with the Miser who has already made plans to receive 50 million ‘and a Ferrari’ from a rich old guy named Simon (Allan Oyugi) who the General intends to marry Elsie that very night.
Elsie’s brother Harrison (Amani Mwasera) has an equally daunting dilemma. The young professional fashion designer who his dad has deemed frivolous, wasteful, and extravagant is also madly in love.
He’s hot for the beautiful Mary Anne (Susan Karani). But before he can tell his dad about his desires, the General announces he will marry the same Mary Anne that same evening as well.
Somehow the General, despite his obsession with wealth and fear of losing the seven billion he’s swiped from the Treasury, has been convinced by the Matchmaker Mademoiselle de Venus (Angel Waruinge) that he must have this lovely girl.
All wedding plans are dashed, however, once he discovers his bag of billions has gotten lost, ‘stolen’ by Harrison who’s discovered his dad is also a loan shark as well as a stingy, autocratic old man.
State House is thrown into a tizzy which quickly turns into chaos once the pistol-wielding corrupt police officer Kinuthia (Dru Muthure) shows up and starts shooting with a big bang that startles one and all!
But the whole scene is saved once Simon arrives, hears of the children’s plight, and has an epiphany of his own. It turns out he’s the long-lost dad of Harrison and Mary Anne who got swept away in some sort of tsunami that destroyed everything he and his family ever had.
Assuming they had all died, he’d started a new life. But now, he’s prepared to take on the paternal role. He approves of his children’s weddings. Meanwhile, Harrison says the General will not get his seven billion back unless he approves as well.
So, all’s well that ends well.