In its construction, Moliere’s classic comedy Tartuffe is pure neoclassicism, a style of theater that was all the rage in 17th-century France. In line with the rigid rules of this particular type of acting, Temple Repertory Theater’s production strictly adheres to the unities of time and place. All the action takes place in a single room over the course of a single day.
The room is in the house belonging to Orgon (the versatile David Ingram), who has recently become enamored with a deeply religious (or so he thinks) con man named Tartuffe (an appropriately duplicitous Rob Kahn). A man of considerable wealth, Orgon is impressed by Tartuffe’s apparent disinterest in material goods. “His poverty is what I prize/It elevates him in my eyes,” explains Orgon. The other members of the household (with the exception of Orgon’s mother Madame Pernelle) see Tartuffe for the charlatan he is. “He is performing all the time/A sort of pious pantomime,” rightly observes Orgon’s opinionated maid Dorine (a sassy Genevieve Perrier).
Temple Repertory eschews Richard Wilbur’s 1963 version—which is moderately graceful in its attempt to translate Moliere’s Alexandrine rhyme scheme (12 syllable lines with each pair of adjacent lines rhyming) but also lifeless—in favor of the wonderfully coarse, colloquial and very amusing 1982 translation by Ranjit Bolt. Uninterested in historical accuracy, Bolt’s contemporary version allows a director room to exercise their interpretative skills. The result is that instead of the usual mummified Tartuffe (most productions treat the play as an artifact from a distant era), Director Emmanuelle Delpech’s production makes Moliere’s 17th-century classic seem practically new.
Without dramatically altering the play, Delpech takes Moliere’s topic of religious hypocrisy and applies it to contemporary American politics, specifically the upcoming 2012 presidential election and the current field of Republican candidates.
A longtime collaborator with the dance-clown-theater ensemble Pig Iron Theatre Company, Delpech’s playful Tartuffe isn’t as experimental as her work with Pig Iron. There are elements of clowning (the actors wear white paint on their faces) but the production is noted more for its efficiency than its theatrical ingenuity.
What the production lacks in innovation it more than makes up for in playfulness. Most of the actors are comfortable with the show’s cartoonish quality (evoked nicely in Jamie Grace-Duff’s colorful costumes), with the exception of Kate Czajkowski, who portrays Orgon’s wife Elmire. One of the area’s best performers of realism, Czajkowski excels at revealing the emotional depth of characters that are outwardly reserved. But there is nothing reserved about Elmire and Czajkowski struggles to adopt the playful mood established by Delpech.
Ganier’s Madame Pernelle is a treacherously naïve woman who bludgeons those she views as morally corrupt. Sounding like a particularly rancid version of Tea Party favorite Michelle Bachmann, she chastises the other members of the household for their parties and social gatherings. “You stand on shaky moral ground/The mode of life that you expound/Is one that no one should pursue/(No decent person in my view).”
Orgon—who in his inability to maintain a position is a gullible version of Mitt Romney—adopts Tartuffe’s narrow-minded sense of morality. However, in Ingram’s fascinating performance, Orgon is less interested in salvation than he is in establishing himself as the dictatorial leader of the household. He is a weak, uncertain man, comically credulous and easily swayed in his opinions.
Moliere employs an absurd contrivance to provide us with a happy ending (which in TRT’s production includes the appearance of a hero sporting an Obama T-shirt), but at a time in American politics when hypocrisy reigns supreme and religion is used as a weapon, Delpech’s production serves as an effective warning against false prophets and their brand of moral certitude.
Through July 29. $20-$25. Randall Theater, 2020 N. 13th St. 215.204.1334. temple.edu/theater
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