Moliere wrote Tartuffe 350 years ago, but Richard Wilbur's English translation of the French script feels contemporary. The social satire concerns a cleric who presents himself as pious while bamboozling a family, and the production at Valiant Theatre in Arabi draws big laughs.
The son of a prosperous tradesman, Moliere became the palace playwright for King Louis XIV in 1665, where he gained insights into power and privilege. Moliere often got himself in trouble for mocking the aristocracy and the Roman Catholic church, which banned performances of Tartuffe.
Tartuffe is considered one of the world's great classical comedies. Although I have seen a French version performed by actors wearing powdered wigs and satin gowns, I enjoyed this performance more. Moliere's work is not seen like this often. The theater's set could be a trailer park, and characters wear mismatched thrift store clothes, eat Cheetos, drink cocktails and smoke dope. Moliere's timeless plot is like a TV sitcom, but the rhythmic beauty of its language elevates its comedy to art. Director Richard Mayer set the play in contemporary Louisiana, and Clove Productions' cast mastered the difficult, lengthy dialogue and made it accessible.
Madam Perneille (Claudia Baumgarten) has not one good word to say about anyone in her family. Her grandson Damis (Andy Nemo) is a dunce, and granddaughter Mariane (Ashton Akridge) is a flirt. Her glamorous daughter-in-law Elmire (Laura VanDruff) is a spendthrift. To stop vicious gossip, Perneille suggests that her son Orgon (Michael Martin) invite Tartuffe (Alex Martinez Wallace), a destitute religious devotee, to live in their home as a model for modest behavior, causing the entire household to protest. "You all regard him with distaste and fear because he tells you what you loathe to hear," she says.
"Do you expect me to submit to the tyranny of that carping hypocrite?" Damis complains. "You see him as a saint. I am far less awed. In fact, I see right through him. He is a fraud."
Dressed in a pea-green suit, straw hat and sandals, Orgon is mesmerized by the pompous Tartuffe, hanging on his every word. Orgon is so willing to garner favor, he promises his daughter in marriage to the much older and penniless interloper.
There are excellent performances by Akridge as the pouty Mariane, who fears losing her true love Valere; Ratty Scurvics as the straight-talking Cleante; Julie Wakefield as the saucy, outspoken maid Dorine; Martin as the patriarch, Orgon, who hides under a tablecloth to spy on Tartuffe; and Wallace, who as Tartuffe almost gets the best of all of them.
In Cleante's words, "Those whose hearts are truly pure and lowly don't make a flashy show of being holy."