If you’ve lately forgotten the pleasure of watching a man hide under a tiny table as another man attempts to ravish his wife, or that everything looks better in a wig and sounds better in a rhyme, then you, monsieur, madame, need to be “tartuffified.” Taproot Theatre’s production of Molière’s masterpiece will do the trick, indulging Tartuffe au natural, in all of its bewigged 17th century farcical glory.
Molière presents and revises a familiar set of farcical game pieces: the old Grande Dame, the naive young lovers, the hot-headed heir, the (almost) cuckolded husband and cuckolding wife, the voice of reason no one listens to, and the clever, all-seeing maid. Orgon (Don Brady), the bumbling family patriarch, has adopted Monsieur Tartuffe (Frank Lawler), a pious hack, as his adviser, welcoming him into his home for the moral betterment of the entire family. The family, for their part, see through the charade and conspire to reveal Tartuffe as the greedy, lascivious fraud that he is. This becomes more urgent when Orgon promises to wed Tartuffe to his daughter, Mariane (Charissa Adams), and more urgent still when he decides to bestow upon him the rights to the family estate, complete with access to incriminating documents.
Of course, the initial journey of a 21st century audience into the linguistic world of 17th century France is bound to be a somewhat bumpy carriage ride. The period setting combined with translator Richard Wilbur’s rhyming iambs cause the actors to speak with a Shakespearian lilt and varying degrees of British accent. It is a testament to the actors that their clever emphasis and energetic delivery dulls the distraction of the rhymes. Certain phrases ring with such present-day humor one wonders if they’ve made alterations (they have not).
French flair enters the production through the occasional “monsieur” or “adieu,” a messenger with a thin mustache and a thick mole, a sign—or, rather, scroll—bearing the play’s alternate title, ‘l’imposteur”.
The setting—the drawing room of a 17th century Parisian mansion, designed by Mark Lund—feels traditional in structure with detailed moldings and red brocade benches, but is painted like a garish dollhouse: electric blue walls with loud yellow, green and red accents. The bright colors contrast with two darkly painted, French portraits on the upstage wall. The black and white tiled floor transforms the stage into Tartuffe’s would-be chessboard—on which Orgon and Elmire are pieces.
The overall affect is lightly carnavalesque and, as it happens, Versaille was somewhat of a funhouse under the rule of le roi soleil Louis XIV. An accomplished dancer himself, Louis was a great supporter of the arts and personal patron of Molière. The first production of Tartuffe was performed for the court at Versailles in 1664, and while positively received by both public and king, the play ruffled the plumes of the Catholic church who used their influence to ban the play for several years.
While the Tartuffe’s subversive bite may not sting present-day audiences with the same venom, Molière’s wit is as potent as ever. The play skips along as the actors move energetically about the Taproot’s thrust stage, listening in at doorways, hiding under tables, gesticulating with exasperation and spouting rhyming répliques. The cast misses no opportunity for innuendo, all the while steering clear of impropriety—at least by 21st century standards.
As sassy maid Dorine, Charity Parenzini’s loud facial expressions and wry charm drive much of the first half of the show. In one scene, orchestrating a reconciliation between stubborn adolescent sweethearts Mariane and Valère (Nathan Jeffrey), she slaps Mariane’s tiny hand together with Valères outsized one and, looking at the clearly mismatched set declares, with forced conviction “Ahh, a perfect fit.”
Director Karen Lund and custume designer Sarah Burch Gordon layer the production with physical comedic elaboration. When Valère bursts into the play like a like a cross-dressing linebacker into a teashop, it’s hard to say if it’s his stature that feels out of place or the shiny waistcoat, over-plumed hat and pink bow dangling from his mass of corkscrew locks. In the world of farce, awkward becomes charmingly absurd, and Valère seems to occupy not one but two of Molière’s farcical worlds–Tartuffe by way of Les Précieuses Ridicules.
The play is written such that we hear of Tartuffe long before we see him, and when he finally does enter, Frank Lawler is no let down. With his square jowls, straight dark wig, and black pilgrim smock, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Ozzy Osbourne or a more full-bodied Severus Snape. Lawler’s Tartuffe is an especially smarmy one, at times played like a wannabe Dom Juan. He has his own personal servant, overindulges in sacramental wine, and wears more bling than Louis XIV and Nicolas Sarkozy combined.
The love and support of the familial ensemble is what stands out in Taproot’s Tartuffe. The family members themselves exude such farcical energy we can only imagine the Tartuffe debacle is but one episode in a series of familial shenanigans—a 17th century sitcom for which we will certainly wish to stay tuned.
Pictured above: Don Brady and Charissa Adams in Tartuffe. Photo by Matthew Lawrence.
Tartuffe runs at Taproot through March 3.