If your French Lit term paper lingered earnestly on the merciless skewering of religious hypocrisy in Tartuffe, you’re forgiven; you were young and idealistic, and maybe you thought Moliere was concerned merely with matters spiritual. Now, though, it’s an election year in a nation that still professes to think of itself as one under God, and we the people are called yet again to reflect on how durable a political tradition is the act—and isn’t “act” precisely the word?—of pious public posturing.
Olney Theatre’s candy-coated production, directed with considerable charm and a solid sense of theatrical history by the veteran actress Halo Wines, is a relatively straightforward staging; there’s no bending of line readings or resetting of scenes to highlight the politics of the play’s original context or to link it to the politics of our own time. Still, it’s all but impossible to watch the proceedings—to hear the effortless hair-splitting and word-parsing as Moliere weighs both reason and common sense against the blatant manipulations of the titular con man—without imagining what fun the acerbic old playwright would have been on Meet the Press.
If the ideas in Tartuffe are political and philosophical in nature, the events are decidedly domestic; the plot centers largely on a derailed wedding, which seems to have inspired Wines to set the action in a slightly skewed fairy-tale locale that’s what you might get if the design firm of Fellini & Disney LLP had been commissioned to create Barbie’s Dream Wedding Chapel. James Kronzer’s collapsed-wedding-cake set, with its concentric colonnades and its swags of tulle, its oversized dragees and its confectionery mirrors, is enough to provoke a giggle all on its own—and then the cast enters, arrayed in shades of pink and purple and peach, sporting candy-cane stockings and glittery bosoms and towering, color-streaked wigs that might be sculpted out of marzipan.
If it sounds like a bit much, it is—but it works, and bear in mind that the outrageous wiggery and troweled-on maquillage is all but a direct homage to the performance practice in Moliere’s own troupe. Likewise for the walking stick with which an ostentatiously religious bourgeois flogs himself as he enters—it’s a near relation, surely, to the loud wooden “slapstick” that was a major staple of commedia dell’
arte, the form Moliere first practiced and then improved upon. And if you find yourself wearied, after three or four iterations, by those comic little interpretive dances during the scene changes, bear in mind that once, just a century or three ago, there would have been whole balletic entreactes in their place—and offer up silent thanks that theatrical traditions change.
Mitchell Hebert and Alan Wade, as the faux-cleric con artist of the title and the aging gentilhomme who’s become his all-too-willing dupe, lead a mostly solid cast. Hebert makes such a relaxed, nonchalant sort of villain once he finally makes his entrance that you may find yourself wondering why the top-billed part is relatively small. (It’s not, actually, and that’s a compliment; there’s nothing so rare or so commendable as an actor who leaves you wanting more.)
Wade’s performance is similarly understated, but for a while, at least, it looks as though his characteristic restraint—usually a considerable asset—is going to mark him as the least lively personality on a stage full of extroverts. He did eventually raise his energy level on press night, though, and in fact played one pratfall so broadly as to nearly lose his wig.
Both men, however—despite one infectiously uproarious bit of business that has Hebert laughing through crocodile tears—are handily upstaged more than once by the core members of the supporting cast. Carolyn Pasquantonio squeaks and flutters and double-takes without a hint of shame and without missing a single beat; David Marks makes a plummy, exasperated realist of Cleante (or at least as much a realist as a man wearing ringlets and brocade can be); MaryBeth Wise’s tart, cynical Dorine is a common-sensical chorine in sugar-candy shoes.
And all of them are roundly outdone by a hysterically goofy Christopher Lane, doing a kind of skittish, ungainly avian routine as the young lover who thinks he’s been spurned, and an extraordinarily graceful Julie-Ann Elliott, who—besides deploying a comic sneeze that sounds like the bark of an especially small dog—handles the rhyming couplets of Richard Wilbur’s 1963 translation with terrific poise.
The whole souffle deflates considerably in the last scene, but that’s political reality for you; Moliere, you’ll remember, rewrote the play and tacked on a rex ex machina conclusion to get around the ecclesiastical power brokers who’d repeatedly had it banned from the 17th-century stage. But what precedes that hasty wrap-up proves that after 336 years, the master of social satire still has us pegged when it comes to what we say in public about our private lives. Meet the Press? If Olney’s production is any indication, Moliere would be in there slugging it out on Politically Incorrect. CP