A Tantalizing "Tartuffe"

By Geary Danihy
           

Resurrecting a play that’s close to four hundred years old might seem an exercise in futility. After all, what can we moderns share with those who knew nothing of computers, cell phones and Paris Hilton? Of course, the lie is put to that every time a play by Shakespeare is staged. Humanity is humanity, whether dressed in sweat suits or broad lace and slashed sleeves, and this is made abundantly clear in the engaging, witty production of Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse.

 

The play, translated by Richard Wilbur and deftly directed by David Kennedy, is a satire on religious charlatanism, a warning not to be taken in by those who profess too much piety, a dangerous subject in 17th century France. Louis XIV viewed the play, liked it, then immediately banned it, supposedly at the urging of influential prelates, even though Moliere tried his best to suck up to his royal highness.

 

It opens with Madame Pernelle (Patricia Connolly) chastising members of her son’s household for their loose behavior and, more importantly, their lack of respect for Tartuffe (Marc Kudisch), an exceedingly holy man who has wangled his way into the household by beguiling the good lady’s son, Orgon (Mark Nelson), who worships the ground his sandaled feet walk upon.

 

The rest of the family is not taken in. The outspoken maid, Dorine (Jeanine Serralles) protests, Orgon’s son, Damis (Justin Adams) protests, Elmire, (Nadia Bowers), Orgon’s wife, protests, her brother, Cleante (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) protests, and Orgon’s daughter, Mariane (Cahrise Castro Smith), protests most  vigorously, since Orgon wishes her to marry Tartuffe, all to no avail. Mother knows best, and her son is so blinded by Tartuffe’s false piety that he will not hear a word spoken against the man.

 

The stage being set, the rest of the play deals with the efforts of those set against Tartuffe to open Orgon’s eyes, which they finally accomplish but, alas, all too late, for by this time Orgon has already signed over his inheritance to the rogue and entrusted him with dangerous documents. Ousted from Orgon’s home, Tartuffe retaliates by going before the king to demand his “inheritance” and the arrest of the “seditious” Orgon. The family is to be evicted and Orgon imprisoned.

 

Originally written by Moliere in alexandrines (12 syllable, rhymed lines), Wilbur’s translation of the play keeps the rhymed couplet format but eschews the 12 syllables. However, the structure of the dialogue presents a potential problem – rhymed couplets. How easy it is to fall into the trap of emphasizing the form of the dialogue. Fortunately, the only actor who tumbles is Henderson, whose delivery is somewhat stilted. He bangs on the rhymes as if they are bells he has been asked to ring. The rest of the cast, in varying degrees -- Serralles and Kudisch succeed best at this -- overcome the temptation.

 

The production drags at certain moments, mainly because Kennedy, in these moments, has his actors simply stand and deliver their lines, especially in the early minutes of the play when exposition is all. Fortunately, soon after Madame Pernelle’s departure Dorine and Mariane have an extended argument about whether or not Mariane should marry Tartuffe, and the stage lights up, drawing energy from Serralles’ bravura performance.

 

In this scene, and several that follow, Serralles basically establishes the fact that she owns the first act, enabled by Kennedy’s direction which allows her to pull off a monumental, authorized bit of upstaging: as Mariane and her intended, Valere (Matthew Amendt) have a lover’s quarrel, Serralles gets to sit center stage, filing her nails and commenting on the quarrel with facial expressions that range from disdain to disbelief. Hey, if the director gives it to you, go with it, and she does.

 

Another high point is Tartuffe’s seduction of Elmire -- here both actor’s shine as Orgon hides beneath a table until he is finally satisfied (much too late for Elmire’s satisfaction) that Tartuffe is a cad.

 

The play ends with an extended paean to the glories of the king, whop resolves all. It’s Moliere trying too hard to please the powers that be, but in a delightful coup de theatre Moliere’s sycophancy is itself satirized.

 

Get over the form of the dialogue and you’ll have a rollicking good time watching Tartuffe try to inveigle his way into the hearts and minds of a dysfunctional family and get his just comeuppance.

 

The run is through Aug. 4. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportcountryplayhouse.org.

 

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