We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Early in Karl Kippola’s exasperating mounting of Tartuffe, you’ll sense that the director’s come up with lots of reasonable-in-the-abstract but hellish-to-pull-off notions that will doom his production as surely as the mostly amateurish performances do. About 30 seconds into the play—the play proper, not the chirpy added intro in rhymed couplets about turning off cell phones—a singer (who’s not in the play) is crooning in French, and a valet (who’s speaking in verse) is translating her lyrics into English, and the guy playing Tartuffe (who shouldn’t be appearing for almost an hour) is being weasel-y and repellent in mime. Now, if a playwright chooses not to bring on his title character for an hour while having everyone else wonder how the master of the house could be deceived by such a pious hypocrite, he probably has a reason. At Church Street Theater, that reason becomes clear as soon as the chatter about Tartuffe starts falling pancake-flat. Here, Molière’s comic exaggeration registers not as punch lines but as mere description, because we’ve seen the guy, and as overplayed by Jesse Terrill, he is as advertised. Meanwhile, Tartuffe’s valet is painstakingly removing things from Orgon’s theoretically luxurious home (which scrappy Journeymen Theater can represent only with flimsy painted flats and a few props). At first he simply seems to be stealing, but when he hangs scrolls with Latin phrases on freshly empty walls, it becomes clear the director meant the removals to show the domestic effects of Tartuffe’s doctrine of earthly self-denial (a perfectly sound idea but one that doesn’t work without extravagance). During all this, the actors (that term is shameless flattery except when applied to Jjana Valentiner) are overdoing every gesture because they’re not getting laughs, so when they reach the broad physical comedy of the concealment scene (in which a still-credulous Orgon hides under a table as his wife fends off Tartuffe’s advances), their frantic gesticulations register not as a hilarious expansion but as more of the same. Each overwrought misstep, mind you, is symptomatic of a resource-squandering troupe that once knew the virtues of economy. Theater, remember, can be done with two planks and a passion, and while Tartuffe can benefit from a certain opulence, it really requires just one prop—a table under which Orgon can hide. Here, that table is covered with a heavy velvet tablecloth (the one luxe item on display), and if Kippola had simply stripped the stage to bare walls, lit that table with a beam of light, and piled it high with sumptuous stuff, then the valet’s gradual removal of the stuff—replaced perhaps by a single Bible—would have registered just as the director intends. In fact, when Tartuffe swept that Bible off the table to mount Orgon’s wife, his perfidy might well have been transcendent. And the whole thing might even have looked stylish on a budget. Alas, that ain’t what’s up there on stage. What’s up there is a mess.