Huntington's "Tartuffe": May the Farce Be with You

The Cast of "Tartuffe"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Cunning old scoundrel, deplorable cad, one sees him pious though most see him bad;
Today he'd be viewed as a jester or goof; for more than three centuries, known as Tartuffe. (Craib)

Huntington Theatre Company takes on the challenge of Moliere's seventeenth century farce, generally considered one of the world's best plays. Since its satirical targets are feigned religious piety and hypocrisy, (perhaps as a result of the playwright's early Jesuit schooling), it's had, and continues to boast, quite a long shelf life. First presented in a briefer version in 1664, originally in rhyming alexandrine verse (twelve syllables per line), it was subsequently suppressed by Louis XIV for a period of five years. Huntington's current version is translated by Ranjit Bolt, in octameter verse (eight syllables per line), here directed by the company's Artistic Director Peter DuBois. While Bolt is no Hammerstein or Sondheim, his text manages by and large to succeed, with a few missteps that don't really rhyme (“been”/”mean”) and a lot that are way too predictable. Still it's a gutsy challenge he undertakes, and most of the cast carry it off, though it can be taxing to comprehend (think two hours of listening to the cadence of Frost's “whose woods these are I think I know”, and you'll get the idea). Opening night jitters seemed to cause several members of the cast (some with estimable past acting credits) to deliver their lines much too rapidly, or swallow their punch lines, but this should work itself out as they grow more familiar with the demands of the play. That said, anyone expecting subtlety from French farce may miss the point; what one may rightly expect is that doors (and rather massive ones in this case) will be slammed, and scenery will be chewed (intentionally). When directed and played as broadly as in this production, one's reaction will depend greatly on personal taste for that sort of approach. For centuries, this work has survived and flourished.
Tartuffe (Brett Gelman) is a faux zealot and religious hypocrite, a fact that is obvious to virtually everyone except a gentleman named Orgon (Frank Wood), his sole credulous follower in the play. Tartuffe oozes his way into Orgon's household intending to marry his daughter Mariane (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), seduce his second wife, Elmire (Melissa Miller) and run off with the family fortune. Recognizing his true colors are Orgon's son Damis (Matthew Bretschneider), his Maid Dorine (Jane Pfitsch), his brother-in-law Cleante (Matthew J. Harris), his mother Madame Pernelle (Paula Plum), his mother's maid Flipote (Katie Elinoff) and Valere (Gabriel Brown), who is engaged to Mariane. The other characters are Tartuffe's acolyte Laurent (Steven Barkhimer), Monsieur Loyal, a bailiff (Barkhimer again) and an official of the Court (Omar Robinson).

Frank Wood & Brett Gelman in "Tartuffe"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In the wrong hands, farce can overplay the aspects of slapstick inherent in this type of work and forget that its purposes are “to correct the faults of men” (Moliere) and “escape through anarchy into a surreal world; joy in verse is the contrast between the discipline of the form and the ludicrous nature of what's being described” (Bolt). It's a dual challenge when one factors in speaking in rhyming couplets. Let it be said that the miracle of this production is that it spans and even connects the dots of a few centuries of satire. Though the play reeks with timeless (and timely) references, it's fundamentally its immediacy that transports (and transforms). Save for the obligatory homage to the use of meter, this could have been written yesterday (or tomorrow). This is in large part due to the content supplied by Bolt and the form as helmed by DuBois, not to mention the assembled cast of caricatures, especially Gelman in the title role, looking and acting like a cross between Rasputin and Tevye. Since this is live (and lively) ensemble theater, the contributions of the creative team are more crucial than ever, from the clever Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge to the varied Costume Design by Anita Yavich to the effective Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind and Sound Design by Ben Emerson. Add in the (unexpected) Choreography by Daniel Pelzig and Original Music by Peter Golub and you have quite a pre-holiday package of delights for lovers of the visual and the verbal even when they are totally lacking in nuance.

At a running time of two hours with one intermission, this remains a roller coaster of a trip. And one might ask the obvious question: are there echoes of Tartuffe today? (When was the last time we heard disingenuous reference to “our thoughts and prayers” as a piteously pseudo-pious official response to the latest tragedy, and how easily such insincerity comes tripping off administrative tongues?). Make no mistake about it, if you like this style of comedy, this is as good as it gets.

May the farce be with you, through December 10th.

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