Moliere's Tartuffe, now in a searingly funny production by CityStage Ensemble at Jack's Theater, takes on religious hypocrisy with such fervent zeal that it laid its original audience to waste. But then Moliere's patron, the "Sun King" Louis XIV, was overwhelmed by the sheer audacity of the irreverent playwright and beset by raving clergy demanding the immediate destruction of the manuscript. Theater people in those days were not buried in hallowed ground, and plenty of canting churchmen wanted to see Moliere interred outside the churchyard before his time. Hypocrites, after all, are conscious of their nasty deceptions and furious when they stand exposed.
Orgon, a rich bourgeois gentleman, has invited into his home and his confidence Tartuffe, a puritanical Catholic layman. Tartuffe plays the saint, looking disapprovingly at the vices (usually harmless habits) of others. Moliere captured that persistent proclivity in all of us to put down our fellows in order to appear superior. In reality, Tartuffe is a lecher in pursuit of Orgon's wife and a calculating embezzler in pursuit of Orgon's money. Poor Orgon is completely taken in by the righteous show.
Orgon comes by his blindness naturally--his old mother is the only other soul in the household fooled by the villain. Everyone else sees through Tartuffe, but nobody knows how to open Orgon's eyes. Until experience itself teaches him to see, the silly old fool simply refuses--and it's Orgon's willful blindness that is at once so infuriating and so familiar. Orgon never questions either Tartuffe's motives or his own slavish adoration of him. So Moliere's rex ex machina ending is necessary--in fact, is just right--as a plea to the king (and now to us) to see through the mendacious miscreants who hide behind long faces and self-righteous gibberish.
Orgon disowns his own son, Damis, for accusing Tartuffe of trying to seduce Orgon's wife (and Damis's stepmother). But as the family resists Tartuffe, Orgon promises the rascal his own daughter in marriage and finally deeds over all his property to him in lunatic trust. It looks like Orgon's goose is cooked until, by royal intervention, order is restored.
CityStage Ensemble mounts a breathless, bright version of the play that makes consistent and astonishing sense at every turn. Dan Heister's sleek direction keeps the interpretations clear, intelligent and insightful. The actors move gracefully about the small stage at Jack's as if they had all the space in the world, and the comic timing is nearly flawless.
Watching Terry Burnsed's Tartuffe, you can see the wheels turning in the rogue's head. Burnsed does something I've never seen done so well in this role: He gives us moments of sincerity when Tartuffe actually appears to believe what he is saying. These brief moments--for example, when he attempts to rationalize away Orgon's wife's scruples about adultery--then blossom into manipulative lies before us. Burnsed gives Tartuffe moments of such bleak darkness that he scares us even while we laugh at him.
Greg Ward's blustering Orgon is carefully layered, hilarious and oddly sympathetic. Director Heister keeps the action natural, and Karen Erikson's wise and witty maid, Dorine, comments on the play's events with sassy wisdom. Rebekah Buric as daughter Marianne and Christopher Leo as her suitor, Valere, make a bright pair of thwarted lovers, while Patty Figel as the pompous matriarch Mademoiselle Pernelle is perfect--right down in the mire of self-deception and arrogant disregard for reality.
It took several years and several rewrites for Moliere to get past the censors in his day, though the king liked and defended him. Maybe it was all those rewrites that made the play so balanced--and so reasonable that it remains relevant here and now. The play has come down to us as an exquisitely insightful expose of a religious con artist. But today, especially in this production, Moliere speaks to all the sanctimonious pretenders who would run our lives for us with PC platitudes, political propaganda or fundamentalist agendas.
There is a difference between authentic goodness and pious pretense, Moliere tells us. Look at the man's actions, not just his words. Wrong is not right, and it takes wisdom to know the difference.
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