BWW Review: Robert Caisley's Updated, Trumped-Up Take on Moliere's TARTUFFE at American Stage

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I wonder how Robert Caisley's updated version of TARTUFFE at American Stage will play after the election. I saw it a few days before "the most important election of our lives," but barring some constitutional crisis, those people who will see if after November 8th will have a very different theatre-going experience. Will the jokes seem as funny, as pertinent, no matter if the victor wants to "make America great again" or if they want to be "stronger together"? It's an interesting situation, because theatre is a living organism, and here you have a 350-year-old play re-written to encapsulate a current election. The question is, will it succeed beyond the day that Americans finally vote?

But I guess that's for the post-election audiences to judge. As for me, in its pre-election incarnation, it's funny, biting, scary and timely. I understand the need to update a play that needs no updating (TARTUFFE is Moliere's masterpiece for a reason), because now it can easily fit into American Stage's "In Search of...America" theme. But TARTUFFE (also called "The Hypocrite" or "The Imposter") is so perfect a play anyway, outside of this crazy election year, that I don't think the updating is completely necessary. We would be able to connect the dots of this imposter and hypocrite even without the overt election references. But it's been done, and the new spin mostly works, especially due to its two leading actors and an incredible set.

As Tartuffe, one of the great roles in theatre, Ricky Wayne is delightfully naughty, a cartoon character sprung to life. He loves being the hypocrite, the sly smile-to-your-face wonder. It's one of those energetic portrayals that explodes onstage, a fake-pious, sexually-charged, Trumped-up Tasmanian Devil with a Wile E. Coyote grin and American Flag socks. He turns a mere journey up the stairs into a laugh riot. I could have done without the moments where Wayne breaks the fourth wall after spewing some current Trump-like lines; the laughs are there, but they don't need any help by cocking an eyebrow to the audience. (And the Tic Tac joke, as well as several other verbal or physical nods to the election, seem forced.) Still, it's an amazing turn, electric and no-holds-barred, and by himself, Wayne is worth seeing this TARTUFFE (he better be, or they should call the play something else).

Just as good, as Orgon (my favorite role in the show), Ned Averill-Snell once again proves why he is one of our finest local actors. His Orgon is such a strong presence, and his love of Tartuffe knows no bounds. He's like a Magritte businessman turned into one of those Kool-Aid swigging cult members under the spell of the Reverend Jim Jones.

TARTUFFE starts with a blast--a roaring bacchanalia at the Orgon estate to the tune of Lady Gaga's "Perfect Illusion." After this galvanizing beginning, the show becomes rather glacially paced for a turn, with lots and lots of exposition (first reading it decades ago and seeing it over the years, I don't recall the opening scenes being this slow). But then it hits its stride and becomes a sheer delight, once the focus is mostly on Tartuffe and Orgon.

The always marvelous Kelly Pekar is Mira, Orgon's wife, who is always fending off the octopus arms of the lusty Tartuffe . (Pekar dons a wig that makes her look like Isabella Rossellini auditioning for the 1980's band, the Romantics.) Jan Neuberger, as Pernelle, sets the tone just right at the beginning with her diatribe against the partygoers. Georgia Mallory Guy is winning in her Harry Potter glasses as Dorine, but a little of her goes a long way. Roland Rusinek and especially Ben Williamson do well in their roles, and Abigail Cline is lovely as Orgon's iPhone-addicted daughter, Maryann (even though her voice is often too thin and also too shrill at times). J. Elijah Cho, as Val, Maryann's suitor, makes his two scenes more than memorable. He is the dictionary definition of "scene-stealer" in his brief moments onstage, once again prompting me to mention that cliché, "It's not the size of a part, it's what you do with it."

But the real star of this show, aside from Wayne's Tartuffe and Averill-Snell's Orgon, is Jerid Fox's luscious set. It's a grand creation that once again sets American Stage apart from other local professional companies. The nouveau riche home resembles a wedding cake of sorts, scrumptious enough to eat. And it even includes a sliding glass door and, yes, a small swimming pool that is put to ingenious use. This could arguably be crowned the Set of the Year.

With the exception of the slow-going opening scenes, director Brendan Ragan has guided a well-paced, laugh-filled affair. Frank Chavez's costumes suit the show well (especially Mira's bright red attire), and Chris Baldwin's lighting illuminates Fox's brilliant set. The pre-show and intermission music is quite good and knee-tapping, with songs like "Fortunate Son" and "Rockin' in the Free World" getting us in the spirit of things. It may be the best classic rock soundtrack since Dazed and Confused.

Special mention must go to those responsible for the videotaped campaign ads that keep the show hopping along. These videos are almost too accurate, uncomfortably so. It may be too soon, since we're living this upside down election right now, stranded in a quagmire of madness (especially in a swing state like Florida). It's too current for comfort. We laugh, maybe, so that we don't cry. Maybe by the time the election is finished, we can finally take a deep breath and move on to a better future. Yeah, right. That's probably not going to happen. Tartuffe's slogan in this version may be truer than we hope: "Pray for America." Whatever the outcome of the election, after voting, I think both sides of the political aisle can agree that to pray is probably the best thing we can do right now. That, and to laugh. Laugh hard. TARTUFFE at American Stage is a good place to start.

TARTUFFE plays until November 20th. For tickets, please call (727) 823-7529.

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From This Author Peter Nason