Given the city's reputation for thriftiness, it's actually kind of surprising no one has thought to set an adaptation of the French playwright Molière's 17th-century comedy The Miser in Winnipeg before.
But local playwright Carolyn Gray takes the honour with her brand new play The Miser of Middlegate, seeing its premiere in this co-production by Theatre Projects Manitoba and indie company zone41 - and, following Jessy Ardern's Harold and Vivian Entertain Guests, the second of seven plays by Winnipeg women to premiere on local stages this season.
This is also the final instalment in Gray's “Winnipeg Trilogy,” the last part of which - 2010's North Main Gothic - looked at the city's marginalized underclass. Here, she sets her comedic sights on Winnipeg's wealthy, and skewers the avaricious lifestyles of the city's rich and infamous.
The results are, in some ways, very “Winnipeggy” - not flashy, not spectacular, but good, solid entertainment.
Gray wisely takes a lot of liberties with Molière's original (and convoluted) plot. In her smartly streamlined version, the title character is the spectacularly stingy Winchell (Nicholas Rice) - a Winnipeg businessman so cheap he's willing to pick a fight with a waiter over a missing shrimp in his doggie bag.
When his scrappy wife Mia (Marina Stephenson Kerr) threatens to divorce him - and take half his coveted money in the process - Winchell has to launch a plan to win her back, and hold onto his dough, with the help of his trusted (but unpaid) servant Richard (Ryan Miller).
What ensues is fairly standard - but satisfyingly amusing - farce comedy. All the tropes of the genre are here - inappropriately-timed entrances resulting in comical misunderstandings, cross-dressing, sexual innuendo, and door slamming aplenty.
The Miser of Middlegate is uneven - while there are certainly some big laughs, and plenty of chuckles, there are also significant lulls in the comedy, including some awfully long expository bits (another hallmark of the genre, but one we could do without here). A judicious trim to the two-hour running time, especially in the drawn-out last half hour, would certainly help focus the play's considerable comedic potential.
All that said, it's sold admirably by director Krista Jackson's sharp pacing, and solid work from her five-person cast. Rice is delightfully Scrooge-ish as Winchell - he's given free range to chew the scenery, and he makes the most of it. Stephenson Kerr finds the humour in Mia's every withering barb and stare. And Shannon Guile brings an amusing cluelessness as their spoiled daughter, Emily.
Miller draws some of the show's biggest laughs with his rubber-faced turn as Richard, who is by turns obsequious and mysterious. And Andrew Cecon rounds out the cast nicely as a waiter who serves up a few surprises for us before the play's end.
Taken altogether, The Miser of Middlegate may not be the dazzling “Middlegate mansion” of comedies. Think of it more like a St. James bungalow - solid and unassuming, but with charm enough to endear it to us thrifty Winnipeggers.