Tartuffe -- Westport Country Playhouse
How fortunate that the poet Richard Wilbur (once the nation’s Poet Laureate) had chosen to take on Moliere, rescuing him from the doldrums of dullness! When we were subjected to Moliere in school, in English translation, we wondered at his one-time popularity. But then Wilbur came along and turned the French classics into captivating, irresistible rhymes. Wilbur grasped the true essence of Moliere’s hilarious comedies, while making them understandable to us moderns.
Proof of this is the Westport Country Playhouse’s current sprightly production of Moliere’s “Tartuffe.” David Kennedy directs the piece, having corralled a suitable cast of pros. Marc Kudisch stands out, putting his own stamp on the title role. He is not the severe, monk-like Tartuffe we have met in the past, but comes across as a sad, beggarly creature. This gives Kudisch a good base for a gradual emersion, for growing power, as the play moves forward.
The story, briefly, focuses on a man who pretends to be highly pious, but is in fact a rogue, living on the generosity of others. He lives with the rich man Orgon, who is totally duped by Tartuffe. But others in Orgon’s family see Tartuffe for what he is. Finally, with the help of a careful trap, Tartuffe is -- literally -- uncovered.
Highlights of the play are Tartuffe’s scenes with Organ’s wife, a woman he hopes to seduce. And Kudisch plays it to the hilt, in a wily, sinuous style which builds in tension and sexuality.
Moliere, despite Wilbur’s efforts, can be wordy, as he preaches morals and manners to his audiences. And indeed the first act, even under Kennedy’s skilled direction, is stiff and somewhat boring. Moreover, Kennedy’s cast stands about in frieze style, never moving a muscle. But the production picks up as the story moves forward, with fine ensemble work. Particularly noteworthy, beside Kudisch, is Mark Nelson, as the duped Orgon and Jeanine Serralles, who turns the maid Dorine into a spunky clown. Patricia Conolly as Organ’s insufferable mother is right on target, and Jeremy Lawrence makes a memorable cameo performance at the play’s end.
A good evening at the Playhouse, and a good lesson in what Moliere is all about.
This review also appears on nytheaterscene.com