Posted by: strugglesome | June 28, 2011

Holier Then Thou: Temple Repertory Theater’s Tartuffe

As Peter so beautifully proved to the Romans occupying Judea, faith is a difficult thing to prove. After all, how do you give evidence of your belief other than to declare it? What would serve as a clear example of your religious convictions, how could you really show the world that you love Jesus, Yaweh, Allah, Buddha, or whatever else you happen to fancy? And would that hold up in court? Well, most of us don’t really need it to, because faith can be a fairly private thing. But if you wear your love of God on  your sleeve (or, if you’re catholic, on your collar) you might find yourself running into trouble. Or getting other people into trouble, which is the case with Moliere’s Tartuffe, now playing as part of Temple Repertory Theater’s summer season. Because while some might see a lying manipulative falsely pious con artist, Monsieur Orgon, the patriarch of a large and largely snobbish functionally dysfunctional clan, sees a saint, come to earth to save us all. And his love affair with this so false prophet almost drives his family out of house and home, only to be rescued in the eleventh hour. And because this is a french comedy, it all happens over the course of one day. Those people really know how to fill their time.

Directed by Emmanuelle Delpech as her thesis project for Temple University’s MFA program and set not in France but in Philadelphia’s own ever so exclusive Main Line, this production has traded good Catholic mores for a more Born-Again approach. Orgon (David Ingram) has traded his Ardmore airs for more of a Bible Belt vibe, praising Jesus and condemning sinners, all thanks to his new BFF Tartuffe (Rob Kahn). But while Orgon’s mother, Madame Pernelle (Yvette Ganier) is comfortable with this transformation from sinner to supplicant, the rest of his family is far from thrilled. His sophisticated second wife, Elmire (Kate Czajkowski) is disgusted, his entitled son Damis (Carl Granieri) and daughter Mariane (Stefanee’ Martin) are horrified, his gender bending other in law, Cleante (Rebecca Rich) is skeptical, and his mouthy maid, Dorine, (Genevieve Perrier) is at the end of her rope. Nothing seems to shake Orgon’s faith in Tartuffe, his adoration knows no bounds, and he even promises his daughter to the man, despite her previous understanding with sweetly dorky Valere (Robert Carlton III).  But Tartuffe only has eyes for his neighbor’s wife, and such covetous desires will be his undoing, which just goes to show, no matter how much we change and progress, nothing halts ambition like a good sex scandal.

But this is comedy, and as Dante taught us, comedies must in fact end in a wedding. So all’s well that ends well, and Mariane and Valere do in fact triumph in their love, as Tartuffe is eventually banished from the stage in humiliation of his pious farce being unmasked as nothing more than a wolf in priest’s clothing. Of course in this version it’s more of a Guantanamo Bay style execution then a graceful trip to the gallows, but, hey, turnabout is fair play, right? And so we have the story, complication piled upon complication (the french really do think simple is a four letter word, don’t they?) deus ex machina  and set dressing emerging in the forms of supplemental roles filled graciously in by Steve Kuhel, Gregg Almquist, Kerry Brind’Amour and Michael Grant, and rhyming couplets rich with commentary (a smooth and even translation by Ranjit Bolt). But the issue we always run up against with Moliere is context. Because his work is so satirical, so sharply piercing and intending to point firm fingers at various aspects of French Society of the 18th century, that transplanting this work into modern settings can feel a bit forced. That’s not to say that Moliere’s plays aren’t gloriously relevant in these modern times, because one article on Harold Campings’ Apocalypse can prove the wonderful necessity of this kind of critical examination of religious practice and faith. But the works do rebel at settings that are intrinsically divergent to their nature. For example, this  production aims to put this work in a Baptist born-again Midwestern context. Well, not only does that go against the principles of Philadelphia’s Main Line (as someone who knows that area well, I can assure you that the majority of the population is staunchly of the Pedestrian of the Red Sea persuasion) but also the Catholic context of the script inherently rebels against this treatment. Of course, hypocrisy is as hypocrisy does, but dropping geographical references doesn’t automatically mean that the concept fits the piece, and works like Tartuffe that are such strong pieces of theater are unobliging when it comes to fitting them in any mold you chose.

Of course, no one is aided by the frustratingly minimalist set design by Daniel Boylen, which includes an inexplicable carpet (we all know we prefer hardwood floors), nursery style tiny white chairs, and a blow up doll Jesus that I crave will get popped. It doesn’t, and more’s the pity, because blow up dolls are like guns, if they don’t go off by the end of the play we can’t help but be disappointed. Boylen’s set design carries over to Jamie’ Grace Duff’s confusing costume plot, which tries to establish a color palette (and sometimes succeeds) but dresses half the cast in some extremely unflattering grab. John Hoey’s lighting is perfectly lovely in every respect, and partner’s nicely with James Sugg’s sound, which, apart from one moment which felt almost accidental, provides a nicely ironic soundscape to guide us through this wacky world of new testament wildness.

Another issue this production faces lies in its large and talented cast, who, intrinsic abilities aside, feel like they are all in separate plays. For example, Kahn’s Tartuffe, who ought to be at least a bit endearing, is a darkly sinister villain, unsympathetic to the core, and it’s completely incomprehensible why Ingram’s hilarious but none too fervently religious Orgon would ever believe in this fallacious fellow. And both of these actors are on a scale that completely escape’s Czajkowski’s too serious Elmire, who could be cleverly sarcastic, but reads as too realistic and humorless against the rest of the cast and the tone of the piece. Martin, Carlton and Granieri are at least absurdly (cutely) physical, which stand out as some of the nicest and funniest moments of the works, and Ganier’s stately scowling matriarch is beautifully effective. And Perrier’s sassy Latina domestica (which, honestly, I had no idea was supposed to be south of the border until my companion mentioned it to me) while the most vibrant and full of, shall I say, joie de vivre, of the cast, is padded and primed for Lopez status, but stuck fighting against the rhythms of a work that can’t accommodate her performance, there’s simply no room. Which is odd, because this piece could have really benefited from some judicious cutting, right now it clocks in at a far too leisurely two hours plus.

What is most frustrating about this piece is that at its most physical it’s the clearest and most humorous it can be, but at times it feels like it’s almost restraining itself, fighting the text and the inclination of the piece in an effort to conform to the assigned setting. And given that the work itself seems to rebel against its modern context, the experience of watching it is like watching a very slow boxing match. Well, there but for the grace of God….

However, it’s wonderful to see Moliere’s work be performed, and to see a new take on this so well-known classic. Should you want to see such a thing, Temple Repertory Theater’s production of Tartuffe will be running from now until July 31st. Pick up tickets here.

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