The Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, which turned forty this year, includes art galleries, meeting rooms, community gathering places and two theaters: the original Main Stage, which usually hosts big musicals, and the newer Black Box Theater, which is as large and well-appointed as many companies’ main stages. Most theaters use these more intimate black-box venues for risk-taking pieces and low-cost experiments, plays with small casts and minimal technical requirements, but the Arvada Center has never seemed quite sure what to do with it. Now, though, Lynne Collins, who’s taken over as the space’s artistic director, has finally come up with a vision for the Black Box Theater — and it’s completely unexpected.
Collins has put together a repertory company comprising some of the area’s best actors. The last time Denver really had a repertory company was when Donovan Marley guided the theater company at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and the return of a repertory company in the area is long overdue. For actors, the setup gives them a longer-than-usual rehearsal period and a season’s worth of job stability. For audiences, the arrangement results in more familiarity with a troupe, and often excellent productions.
The benefits of the Arvada Center’s move are already evident in the rhythms and nuances on stage, the playfulness and the sense of mutual trust among the performers in the Black Box’s current offering.
That production is neither small nor experimental, but rather Molière’s multi-character seventeenth-century masterpiece Tartuffe. Tartuffe is a religious humbug who gulls and defrauds his victims with a pious demeanor and oily, sanctimonious words. The victim in this case is Orgon: Despite the opposition of nearly his entire family — with the exception of his stuffy mother, Madame Pernelle, who adores Tartuffe — he’s persuaded to hand over to the impostor his daughter Mariane, as well as everything he possesses.
This doesn’t sit well with Mariane, who’s already engaged to Valère. After a lot of comic twists and turns, Tartuffe is undone by his lust for Orgon’s wife, Elmire — or so we think, because there are a couple more twists to come.
Though it’s farcical, Tartuffe contains some pointed and still relevant truths. It was mightily opposed by the Roman Catholic Church when first written, and of course religious chicanery, not to mention clerical lechery, are familiar to anyone who reads today’s news. The idea of an obvious liar and buffoon succeeding in fooling the multitudes also hits a particularly tender spot right now — though to do him justice, Trump hasn't played the religion card yet.
Collins mentions the play’s topicality in her director’s notes, but her production is staged pretty much solely for laughs. In many versions, Tartuffe’s act is actually convincing at first and only degenerates over time — which helps explain Orgon’s gullibility. But you’d have to be nuts not to see through Michael Morgan’s Tartuffe from the first minute, with his strange intonations, rolling eyes and wildly flapping gestures. I’d prefer a more ambiguous portrayal, but I have to admit Morgan’s version is gut-achingly funny. Almost all of the acting is broad — sometimes too much so — but everyone is having such a ball that it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself.
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The actors are aided by touches of directorial humor: snatches of contemporary songs that both fit and mock the action; the characters’ ubiquitous mobiles, selfies and texts; the topical references. (The production uses Richard Wilbur’s tried, literate and true translation, but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in it about hedge-funders or e-mails.) Sam Gregory’s fine Orgon is both gullible and defensively bullying as he descends from dignity to caricature. In her ridiculous but also ridiculously charming French maid’s outfit, Jessica Austgen brings clarity and unexpected elegance to the role of Dorine. There’s also Leslie O’Carroll’s emphatic Madame Pernelle; Josh Robinson as Cléante, the sensible brother who tries to talk sense to Orgon; and Emily Van Fleet as sweet, funny, dopey Mariane. One of the best performances comes from Kate Gleason, whose Elmire is strong and humorously grounded.
This production takes full advantage of the Arvada’s Center’s sophisticated tech, with Brian Mallgrave’s exquisite, formal and symmetrical set, the eye-pleasing lighting of Shannon McKinney and witty, elegant costumes by Clare Henkel — though I do have to argue with lover-man Valère's hideous orange tunic, and the way it clashes with lovely Marlane's ruffly pink dress.
Molière is a safe and traditional opener for this new company; taking crazy liberties with him may not be exactly daring, but it does fill the air with lighthearted pleasure and promise an interesting season.
Tartuffe, presented by the Arvada Center through November 6, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.