Although written in 1660s France during the reign of Louis XIV, the play is as relevant today as ever. The wealthy Monsieur Orgon and his dowager mother Madame Pernelle have fallen under the spell of the obviously fraudulently pious Tartuffe. Everybody else in the family sees right through him, but Orgon has accepted Tartuffe as his spiritual advisor and lives only to please him. Despite protests all around, Orgon will not be dissuaded from handing over to Tartuffe not only his daughter in marriage but also all his money and his home.
Tartuffe is no Rasputin. He's only a con man, a glutton, and a lecher, and it's the latter that ultimately blows his cover. How Orgon finally comes to see the truth about Tartuffe is the stuff of what we now call "French farce." Maybe it was invented in this play.
Director Micah Linford has chosen to play up the farce angle. You won't find subtle satire in this production. He has skillfully abridged some of the longer monologues so that the action never bogs down. In the original five-act text, the first two acts are mostly exposition; Tartuffe doesn't even appear until the third act. Linford stitches the first three acts into a seamless first half so that the intermission comes almost too quickly. The second half zips along, there are some very clever gags (most notably involving the word "liquorice"), and a wonderful bit of business at the end of the curtain call.
There are a couple of problems, but mainly they overcome themselves. Molière wrote in rhyming couplets, and Richard Wilbur did a very witty translation also in rhyming couplets, no small feat. It might work better on paper than on the stage, though. I kept waiting for the rhymes, and when I missed one, I thought more about "where was that rhyme?" than about the next line. Then again, when the rhyme was obvious, sometimes I was thinking "did he really just rhyme 'pieces' with 'Jesus'?" instead of what the character was saying. Overall, though, the translation is probably the truest to the original French, and eventually I stopped worrying about catching every rhyme and just enjoyed the play.
The other problem is that Tartuffe as portrayed here by Scott Bryan would be incapable of deceiving anyone for even a moment, and although Orgon and his mother are gullible, they are not idiots. Tartuffe should have some degree of suavity and sophistication and charm about him, like most con men do, but Bryan comes off as a doofus from the word go. He seems to be channeling Ed Grimley, I must say, and that just doesn't seem like a credible Tartuffe interpretation. Yet strangely, despite this, I really enjoyed Scott Bryan's performance, inappropriate as it may be. Comedy doesn't have to make sense.
Everybody else in the cast does good work. George Williams is realistic as Orgon, not a blustery nincompoop, but a fool nonetheless. Laira Magnusson as his wife handles the farcical bits well. Alan Hudson plays the brother-in-law, a font of good advice which goes unheeded as good advice usually does, with some gravity but not too much, as is appropriate for this show.
I should also mention Patricia Thompson, who has the haughty old woman role down pat; Quinn Rol, who has been directed to be hyperactive as the son, but it works; Katie Anne Mitchell, who is well cast in the lovely ingenue role; and Laurie McFarland, Bryan Chapman, and Nicholas Jon Ganjei, all of whom play their roles well.
Micah Linford has set the play during the Great Depression in America, but except for a vintage radio and some big band music, it might as well be today. I admire a director honest enough to tell us in his program note that one of the reasons he chose this setting instead of Versailles is that "period costumes are expensive." The set by Matthew Van Wettering (what a multi-talented guyjust last month he was so good as an actor in All My Sons) is impressive, and the costumes by Jaime Pardo and Karen Linford are well done too.
This might not be the Tartuffe you were expecting, but it's a lot of fun, and well-played, and it jibes with a modern audience's attention span. C'est dommage that it's still topical after all these years.
Tartuffe is being performed at the Adobe Theater in Albuquerque through April 28, 2013. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Info at www.adobetheater.org or 505-898-9222.