When Freyda Thomas's adaptation of Molire's Tartuffe was shown at Circle in the Square a decade ago, it received a dismissive review from the New York Times. The seventeenth-century classic is about a religious con man whose false piety ensnares a prominent householder, almost destroying his home and family; translating this idea to the contemporary American South, as Thomas did with Tartuffe: Born Again, and making Tartuffe into a Jim Bakker-Jimmy Swaggart type was simply too obvious, protested the Times critic. Perhaps it's because the political atmosphere has changed since 1996 -- with religious fanaticism distorting national dialogue and helping fuel the most vicious, destructive and nihilistic foreign policy I can remember -- or maybe it's because the cast approaches the work with such relish. Whatever the reason, I thoroughly enjoyed the Germinal Stage's production of Tartuffe: Born Again, and so -- judging from the comments I heard -- did everyone around me.
The action takes place in the television station of a wealthy producer, Orgon, who has been so impressed with Tartuffe's on-air preaching about the necessity for sacrifice that he's drawn up a legal document turning over all his possessions to him. Worse, Orgon is breaking the engagement of his daughter, Maryann, to the quick-tempered but good-hearted Valere and promising her hand to Tartuffe. But although Orgon's mother, Mrs. de Salle, is a disciple who can see no wrong in her beloved Tartuffe, the rest of the Orgon household -- including assistant Dorine (in Molire's original, one of those mischievous, wise maids) -- is on to him. The challenge is to get Orgon to see what is so very clear to them.
Obviously, this is a broad, cartoony plot, but Molire's points about hypocritical religiosity -- which he is careful to distinguish from true religious feeling -- are as relevant now as they have ever been. And Thomas's script is really very clever. She takes on the daunting task of maintaining the rhyming couplets of the original (try writing a page or two of rhyming dialogue if you think it's easy) and tosses in contemporary slang and various Southern phrases. The result is sometimes hilarious, sometimes brilliant and -- okay -- sometimes clunky. She's also added a couple of Shakespearean references, and they're pretty apt. The Prolog, played by Stephen R. Kramer (who returns at the end of the play as an FBI agent), begins the proceedings with "Now is the winter of our discontent" from Richard III -- another play about a powerful, scheming hypocrite who's not averse to using Christianity as a cloak for his ambitions and who, as Tartuffe attempts to do, destroys a household (in Richard's case, a royal one). Later, when the carryings-on on stage have reached a high pitch, Dorine turns to the audience with the Puckish complaint, "Lord, what fools these mortals be," underlining her role as an amused, partially detached and somewhat otherworldly outsider.
Under the direction of Ed Baierlein, the variety of performance styles helps keep this satirical soap bubble afloat. Terry Burnsed plays Cleante, Orgon's wise, ironic brother, with a confident, sometimes almost peevish understatement that contrasts nicely with the over-the-top larking about of the other actors. Suzanna Wellens plays Orgon's luscious wife, Elmire, who sets out to entrap Tartuffe, with sly, infectious humor. Jennifer Anne Forsyth is a vividly talented actress; her Dorine is not the charming little minx we expect, but someone so fed up with the family's stupidity that she's angry most of the time, even bitter -- though she still does her work on the side of the angels. The extended sequence in which, having been ordered by Orgon to stay silent, she listens as he bullies his daughter -- twisting her metaphorically zipped lip disdainfully -- is priceless. Kristina Denise Pitt is a hoot as coy little Maryann (perhaps particularly for those of us who remember her bouncy, pneumatic Felicity Rumpers in Habeas Corpus and the intelligent, strong-willed Ellie she gave us in Heartbreak House). Maryann is a classic quivering-lipped ingenue, and Pitt portrays her without caricature, so that you actually feel for her a little -- yet you also can't shake the amused feeling that there's a touch of irony here, as if the actress were standing just far enough outside the role to comment on it.
The cast sports a variety of strange Southern accents, distorted further by the verse, and perhaps the strangest is Michael Shalhoub's as Tartuffe. You can't complain too much, though, because his characterization is so wonderfully juicy and outrageous, as he manages to be simultaneously oddly engaging and utterly repulsive. His mobile, clearly defined features glisten with lustful sweat as he pursues Elmire; the scene in which he rehearses the sermon he'll use to entrap his listeners is worth the price of admission. This is one of the comic performances of the year, and it's in service of a rollick you won't want to miss.
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