BWW Review: TARTUFFE: Satiric Verses
Written by Molière, Translated by Ranjit Bolt, Directed by Peter DuBois; Scenic Design, Alexander Dodge; Costume Design, Anita Yavich; Lighting Design, Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design, Ben Emerson; Choreographer, Daniel Pelzig; Original Music, Peter Golub; Flying, Flying By Foy; Fight Director, Ted Hewlett; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle
We should all be pretty good at recognizing a charlatan or a con man after the year we've been through, but it does require a certain level of cynicism to consider that a seductive personality is not what he seems. It is also less of a hassle to take someone at face value and believe in their humanity, especially if we are more or less decent folks ourselves. However, when faced with the house-guest from hell, everyone in Molière's Tartuffe is able to see the title character as the fraud that he is - everyone, that is, except for Orgon, the patriarch of the household. It takes some drastic measures and a whole lot of convincing from his entire family and staff, as well as nearly two hours of rhyming couplets, to finally make Orgon see the light and try to salvage his fortune and way of life.
Huntington Theatre Company Artistic Director Peter DuBois directs the 17th century classic comedy as translated by Ranjit Bolt, which premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2002. Unlike many English versions of the French play, Bolt maintains the use of verse, heightening the ridiculous and finding his own imaginative uses of language to keep rhythm and speed in the dialogue. The latter is a double-edged sword in the opening scene of the play as it can take awhile to become accustomed to the patter, or get up to speed, as it were. I found myself playing catch-up until about ten minutes in, eventually figuring out who the players were and what they had been discussing, but the rhyming verse failed to captivate me.
The things that did captivate me were the highly skilled performances and Alexander Dodge's stunning scenic design. Christopher Akerlind's lighting design with shifting hues complements the set, and a contemporary tone is also carried out in the costumes by Anita Yavich. Frank Wood inhabits the clueless and not terribly sympathetic protagonist Orgon, yet I did find myself rooting for him not to be totally taken in by Brett Gelman's deceitful, boorish Tartuffe. A large man with a full, black beard, Gelman credibly conveys Tartuffe's voracious appetite for wine, women, and the family fortune. Orgon's second wife Elmire (seductive Melissa Miller), his daughter Mariane (rubber-limbed Sarah Oakes Muirhead), and Dorine (scene-stealer Jane Pfitsch), their maid, all show their disgust with this beast with a variety of facial expressions and closed body language, while son Damis (Matthew Bretschneider) is vocal and openly hostile, and Elmire's brother Cléante (Matthew J. Harris) is equally anti-Tartuffe, but with a smoother manner. The only other ally is Orgon's mother, imperious Madame Pernelle (Paula Plum), who is rather smitten with Tartuffe. Gabriel Brown does a nice turn as Valère, Mariane's fiancé, Steven Barkhimer shows his versatility in a pair of roles, Omar Robinson (an Officer of the Court) makes a grand entrance, and Katie Elinoff as Madame Pernelle's maid Flipote is barely seen and rarely heard, but has a few good moments.
DuBois gets the most from his cast, with spot on timing, and his blocking lends itself to some brilliant displays of physical comedy. The play flows smoothly from one scene to the next, accompanied by snippets of period music (Peter Golub), and there is some unlikely dancing choreographed by Daniel Pelzig. Huntington Theatre Company continues its fine tradition of stellar production values and a good balance of New York and local actors. Tartuffe is a crowd-pleaser, judging by the audience response on opening night. My own response is somewhat more tepid, but it may be a stress reaction to seeing such a familiar, dissembling character.
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson (Company of Tartuffe)