Review - Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe: Downtown Is Looking More Like Uptown
Have you ever sat in on a production of Moliere's classic comedy Tartuffe and wondered what exactly it was about the religious services of the title character that made the wealthy Orgon want to donate everything he had to his church? Me neither. But apparently playwrights Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner have and their answer is the Classical Theater of Harlem's crazily entertaining semi-spoof, Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe.Now, this is not exactly a full-out adaptation of Moliere's story of a religious shyster who tries to charm a well-to-do lamb out of his fortune while snaring a snog or two from the guy's wife. No, Weiner and Preisser (the latter also directs) thin the plot into the simple fact that Orgon (a cute and amiable Ted Lange) has begun donating every cent he has to a man of the crushed red velvet cloth whose bible says, "The best way to help the poor is by not being one of them," and his family wants to stop him.
But the plot of this 90-minute cavalcade supplies little more than breathing breaks and costume changing time for the sensational André De Shields, who, in the title role, dominates the evening delivering funkified song and dance sermons with blinding electric force.
"All this shazam and shazizzle is my humble offering to you," insists the multi-blinged, gaudily-garbed holy man from 125th Street, who is enthusiastically assisted by a pair of back-up boys (Tyrone Davis, Jr. and Gerron Atkinson) and a scantily clad Supreme Choir (Jennifer Akabue, Gina Rivera, Charletta Rozzell and Kisa Willis) in delivering the message that sex, wealth and fun are all meant to be enjoyed in this life without regard for what comes after. Unlike Moliere's infamous hypocrite, Preisser and Weiner send us a messenger that is very open about the fact that donation dollars go to pay for his Cadillac and fabulous wardrobe. In a sense they are investors in his show and their return is the flash and dazzle of an entertainment that makes them feel good about enjoying life. Costume designer Kimberly Glennon gets numerous laughs with her creations for both the title character and the lovely ladies, who at one point are clad in pink Cadillac bikinis with strategically placed headlights and license plates. ("It's said in Genesis, chapter 25, verse 1: 'Baby's got to have back!'")
In the intimate Harold Clurman Theatre, there's no escaping the fact that nearly each audience member will feel directly addressed by the flamboyant holy man ("Didn't they tell you there is no fourth wall in this church?") and at times De Shields will literally climb over seats to place his "healing hands" on a lady of his choosing and practically lap dance her to salvation. He also deputizes the ladies of his choir to heal any suffering men out there with various body parts. (It's all suggestive, but ultimately clean.)
Unfortunately, the cleverness of the production is sapped dry every time De Shields & Co. leave the stage and we're left with Orgon's family performing uninspired song parodies. His daughter Marianne (Soneela Nakani) hops around like a cheerleader expressing a special attraction for her father in "I'm Just Wild About Daddy," his wife Elmire (Kim Brockington) describes her sexual kinkiness in Edith Piaf style and her brother Cleante (Lawrence Street) uses the Chiffons' hit "One Fine Day (You're Gonna Want Me For Your Girl)" as the theme for his own sermon on gay marriage rights. The actors admirably dive into the bland and sometimes embarrassing material while the audience waits for Mr. De Shields to arrive once more; perhaps this time with a bottle of sacramental Thunderbird.
Photo by Lia Chang: Gina Marie Rivera, Charletta Rozzell, André De Shields, Jennifer Akabue and Kisa Willis