TARTUFFE STRUTS INTO WESTPORT

By Marlene S. Gaylinn

Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” which is over 350 years old, happens to be my favorite comedy. It’s currently playing at the Westport Country Playhouse (WCP) where it is set in a modern mode and being performed by a splendid cast. While the play may drag in a few spots, the audience seemed to enjoy the opening night performance.

 

Like Shakespeare’s works, Moliere’s plays are eternal because human nature is universal and very hard to change. “Tartuffe,” along with a good translation by Richard Wilbur, becomes clever poetry that emulates the original, French version. Like Bach’s mathematical music, Moliere’s patterns of parody are set to carefully timed rhymes. Similar characters, the use of social satire and proper timing derive from ancient Italian commedia dell’arte and are used by successful comics to this day.

 

I confess that I’m a romantic purist. I prefer plays that are presented in the same period they were written in. I don’t need the novelty of modern dress or settings to relate to ancient dramas or comedies. Tinkering with historic Era’s while keeping the ancient dialogue is a big distraction. Instead of focusing on the original work, one is forced to evaluate whether the setting, costumes etc. fit into the society chosen by the director.  Even Shakespeare’s well-known plays are sometimes depicted in several time periods at once and with each novel element struggling for audience attention, his work becomes a circus to the senses. While I agree that human behavior will probably never change, Western society certainly has. We no longer have ruling kings, witches and fairies and therefore, we cannot view the past under the same terms as the present without clashing with reality.

 

However, after giving my opinions about the classics, there are certain, creative exceptions that I’m willing to make. At WCP, the hilarious, opening scene, featuring Patricia Conolly as “Madame Pernelle,” (Orgon’s mother) is one of them. I truly believe that no matter what culture or time period, everyone can relate to an elderly person who demands respect while freely criticizing and administering advice to the younger generation. Here, under David Kennedy’s direction, Conolly takes her authoritative role well in hand and like Queen Elizabeth, in matching hat, gloves and pocketbook, she makes her character eternally believable. If only this modern satire could be strictly adhered to -- but alas, that would be impossible given the play’s ancient material.

 

And so, while this comedy is based on pretentiousness and hypocrisy, I disagree that the other characters portrayed in “Tartuffe” would fit into a wealthy, updated household. It’s hard to believe that Jenine Serralles, as the family’s sassy maid, would become the center of attraction in most of the scenes. Moliere was clearly poking fun at society by illustrating a maid who oversteps her social status. However, Serralles ran away with her role for additional comic effect. In our time, she would be fired on the spot.

 

It is well known, especially with today’s instant news, that many religious people are naive and gullible and that religious leaders and other powerful people are not what they seem to be. However, no contemporary person would board a priest, treat him as if he were part of the family and will him his unwilling daughter and all his family’s wealth. Nevertheless, if you suspend belief, you will enjoy Mark Nelson as the blindly religious head of the household, “Orgon,” and Marc Kurdisch as the fraudulent, priest, “Tartuffe.” The pair play off each other quite nicely. The climatic seduction scene, with Nelson, Kurdisch and Nadia Boers as Orgon’s clever wife, “Elmire,” is the expertly performed highlight of the play.

 

The upside down mural of Paris, which frames Wilson Chin’s plain, living room scene, may be a reflective symbol of the ancient past. There’s also a glorious, surprise ending -- but whether it’s fitting or not is also a matter of individual opinion.

 

Plays to August 4. Tickets: 203-227-4177

 

This review appears in "On CT Theatre" July/August 2012

 

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