The Jean Cocteau Rep company have proven themselves expert at presenting weighty, dark visions of the human soul by such playwrights as Ibsen, Williams, and O'Neill. Their current production of Moliere's Tartuffe is something of a breather, though no less substantial for all its hilarity. Twice banned by French authorities for its scalding indictment of religious hypocrisy, the 1664 comedy is as superbly constructed as it is hysterically funny (especially in this translation by Richard Wilbur).
The wealthy but shallow Orgon discovers the imposter Tartuffe praying fervently in church and is conned by him into taking him into his house. Tartuffe continues duping him and most of the household until he's tricked Orgon into deeding him his estate. Orgon's wife Elmire has not been deceived, though, and sets a trap to expose the swindler by playing to the lustful appetites that betray his true nature.
There's an effervescent air to all of this, even at its darkest moments, and Moliere's verse sparkles in the delivery of it by the Cocteau company. In the title role, the superb Craig Smith was, yet again, unforgettable. Looking at first like a cross between George Carlin and Rasputin, he achieved the considerable interpretive goal of seeming at once pathetically disingenuous AND slickly facile in his ability to fake out his victims. Abner Genece has not, generally, been used well in past productions, but here he made a near-perfect Orgon. His pomp and bluster were both very funny and well-spoken. Elise Stone made a wry Elmire. Angela Vitale was deliciously saucy as the maid who is not hoodwinked by Tartuffe. And there was a remarkable performance by Glenn Cruz as Tartuffe's silent servant, Laurent. It was a study in low-key flamoyance. Harris Berlinsky, in drag as Orgon's mother Mme. Pernelle, chewed up the part with great relish but a little too much camp. And Kennedy Brown, so good in three other productions at the Cocteau this season, unfortunately phoned in his part here as Damis, Orgon's son.
Director Scott Shattuck did extremely well in modulating the difficult shifts in style throughout the text. Scenes of subtle observation of human foibles are followed in a heartbeat by an almost burlesque feel of farce. Shattuck made them all work as part of a dramatic whole.
The set by Patrick Heydenburg and costumes by Susan Soetart were explosively colorful and opulent and faithful to the period of the play (rare for this troupe). Small details were exploited to good effect, such as in Soetart's wigs. Tartuffe first appears in a scraggly rug, then, after chiseling Orgon out of his estate, in a billowy piece of finery.
Ellen Mandel's original music is reminiscent of the 17th century but has an approriately souped-up feel to it. And Brian Aldous's lighting shimmered with just the right atmospheric feel.
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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