A Modern-Day “Tartuffe” in Westport
By Tom Holehan
Rejoice theatergoers! In the space of just a few months we are afforded the pleasure of seeing the superb character actor Mark Nelson trod the boards once again, this time in the Westport Country Playhouse’s current revival of “Tartuffe”. Not all things work in this modern-day rendering of the Moliere classic, but of Mr. Nelson, who wowed audiences last May as the Orthodox father in Long Wharf’s “My Name is Asher Lev”, any chance to revel in his talent is reason enough to get on line for tickets.
“Tartuffe” is, of course, Moliere’s cheerfully belligerent 1600s satire about religious hypocrisy. The comedy introduces head of household Orgon (the peerless Mr. Nelson) who is blind to the dubious attributes of his permanent houseguest, Tartuffe (Marc Kudisch). As Orgon’s family and staff rally to try and open his eyes to the true nature of the ethically challenged Tartuffe, Orgon digs in his heels and sees only a conspiracy to ruin the reputation of a man whom he imagines to be a paragon of virtue.
Utilizing Richard Wilbur’s excellent translation, director David Kennedy updates “Tartuffe” to the present day for no significant reason. The modern approach doesn’t add anything to the genius that is Moliere except to remind us that religious hypocrisy is nothing new under the sun. Taking aim at religious zealots these days is like shooting fish in a barrel. The other problem with this particular revival, and it’s not an insignificant one, is the interpretation of its central character. Mr. Kudisch is a brilliant actor with a long list of admirable credits, but his Tartuffe here is played so dark and seriously (with a depressing costume to match) that much of the humor is lost. Only in the second act when Orgon’s wife (the delectable Nadia Bowers) stages a faux seduction of Tartuffe, does the comedy come fully into play.
On the plus side, however, we are treated to a game cast of actors including saucy Jeannine Serralles as a highly opinionated French maid, Charise Castro Smith as Orgon’s lovesick daughter and Matthew Amendt as her hilarious suitor. The priceless Patricia Conolly is also on hand to steal a few scenes as Orgon’s imperious mother. And through it all Mr. Nelson is never better modulating his performance from star-struck enabler to infuriated cuckold without losing a beat. In a perfect world, Mr. Nelson would always be working.
“Tartuffe” has been extended at the Westport Country Playhouse through August 5. For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.