When Moliere's [Jean-Baptiste Poquelin] comic masterpiece -- Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite -- made its debut in 1664, it met with immediate censorship for its unfeigned criticism of a corrupt government and legal system, dubious morality in the Church, and the credulity of some members of the upper class. But, it takes a sophisticated society to laugh at satire, and the play soon became immensely popular, establishing itself as a staple of world drama.
Much of what goes on in Moliere's robust comedy -- its catalogue of characters and situations might just as well be reported in 21st Century media: rebellious children and their autocratic parents meet up with the 17th Century versions of social media gossip where telling falsehoods often enough and loud enough pass for the truth when a quick fact-check on Snopes.com could settle the matter for those who value verifiable evidence -- sounds all-too-familiar.
Theatre AUM's 90-minute production, using Richard Wilbur's gold-standard verse translation [with significant editing and a few linguistic modifications] is staged on April Taylor's simple and finely rendered set that focuses audience attention on plot and character.
Director Mike Winkelman urges his twelve ensemble actors to speak the verse as rapidly as possible and retain as much as possible of the playwright's intent. There is a good variety of pace in the scenes, so we are engaged in their antics from beginning to end, and though we might miss an occasional word or two because of rapid-fire dialogue or raucous audience laughter at the predicaments the characters find themselves in, the story, characters, and social commentary do not go unnoticed.
Everyone but Orgon [Cushing Phillips] and his mother Madame Pernelle [Amy May] are convinced that Tartuffe, a guest in Orgon's house, has feigned a virtuous moral stance in order to inveigle his way into Orgon's fortune and family; underneath this guise, he appears to have exercised control over everything in his grasp.
And they are all frustrated that their pleas for common sense fall on Orgon's deaf ears. Neither his wife Elmire [Haeley DePace] nor his brother Cleante [David Wilson], his son Damis [Chris Mascia] nor his daughter Mariane [Kate Saylor] and her fiance Valere [Kodi Robertson], not even the outspoken maid Dorine [Amber Baldwin], can penetrate Orgon's stubborn defense of his favorite Tartuffe,
Moliere cleverly keeps Tartuffe off-stage for an extended period of time, leaving his duplicitous reputation to Orgon's family and servants. By the time Tartuffe [La'Brandon Tyre] shows up, Orgon has alienated everyone else, determined that Mariane will marry Tartuffe instead of Valere, and told them that Tartuffe will be favored with just about any privilege he desires, we are well prepared for the smoothest operator imaginable, and Mr. Tyre does not disappoint. He oozes duplicity with obvious pretense, leering faces, sensuous posturing, and melodramatic declarations of guilt when caught in the act. -- [So, how could anyone be duped so easily? Look around you. Empty promises to those who are desperate ring truthfully today.]
The acting company paint their characters with bold strokes verging on caricature at times; yet there are stand-out performances and memorable scenes. -- Ms. Baldwin's artful depiction of Dorine and her unabashedly direct truth-telling, no matter how out of place for a servant, makes the most of Moliere's masterful roles, one that has a long history from Roman comedies to today. She is a force of will and irony that allows her to speak without a filter, and always to audience delight. -- Mr. Phillips imbues Orgon with an authority that will not allow a challenge mixed with such ignorance of the truth that it takes first-hand observation to convince him. The famous scene where Orgon hides under a table to witness Tartuffe seduce Elmire is an outrageous stretch of credibility that all three participants handle well.
Mr. Mascia goes over-the-top in a son's frenzied frustration in not being believed by his father, resulting in Orgon disowning Damis. And Mr. Wilson's Cleante displays so many ticks and giggles that obscure the character's role in the play as the serious voice of reason.
Ms. Saylor and Mr. Robertson are nicely matched as the young lovers: she has a fine sense of comic possibilities in portraying an adolescent petulance and the romanticized notions of love that teenagers revel in, and he bounces in with such energy and commitment to please, only to be tested when he is told the marriage contract is off and he is to be replaced by Tartuffe as husband to Mariane. They bring a youthful vibrancy to their roles that enliven each scene they are in.
Lest anyone should be disappointed, the bad are punished and the good rewarded by the end. Moliere introduces Monsieur Loyal [Jonathan Meinsler] to arrest Orgon at Tartuffe's revenge for kicking him out of the house, but a Police Officer [Brady Walker] rescues him al the last moment and arrests Tartuffe instead.