Moliere's Tartuffe Not Very Deep
The estimable Two River Theatre in Red Bank is offering Moliere's Tartuffe or The Hypocrite in a pleasing new verse translation. Without the benefit of a written script comparison, I can only note that it sounded very similar to Richard Wilbur's highly considered one. The setting has been transposed to the tastelessly cream yellow colored front room of a mansion in contemporary Texas. The elaborate setting and the colorful Texas style costumes are first rate. There are clearly several first rate actors on hand. Yet, except for an extended slapstick set piece and a number of fine comic performances which are performed largely in a vacuum, the production just isn't funny. Watching it is as frustrating as sitting behind the wheel of a new luxury automobile which is fitted out with all the best extras, and finding that the engine will not start.
Impressed by Tartuffe's false displays of piety, the wealthy Orgon has provided a place in his home for the impoverished Tartuffe, and has forced his family to submit to Tartuffe's moral authority. With the sole exception of Orgon's domineering elderly mother, the family is in an uproar over the ascension of the unctuous Tartuffe. Behind Orgon's back, Tartuffe attempts to force his lust upon Orgon's young wife. The foolish Orgon betroths his exceedingly unwilling daughter Mariane to Tartuffe, and signs a document ceding all his worldly goods to Tartuffe. When, after a very funny scene in which Elmire exposes Tartuffe's lechery and hypocrisy to Orgon, Tartuffe, now the property's owner, orders the entire family from the house. The solution does not translate at all to 21st century Texas.
I have pondered hard to discern the reason for the ineffectiveness of the production, and have concluded that much of the blame must be attributed to director Jane Page. For the little mileage that Page gets in resetting the play in contemporary Texas, she gives up much in credibility. The biggest plus is in hearing the rhymed couplets nicely delivered with a musical Texas twang. However, in transposing the time and setting of any classic play, it is necessary that the events and morality ring true in the new setting. The idea that a rag tag church back door supplicant would be installed in a place of power and honor in a rich Texan's house is patently unbelievable. Perhaps a glib, fancy dress, rich and powerful evangelical might obtain such status, but an impoverished scoundrel without the credentials of power and success, never. Neither that broad-fronted eight-foot-high cross on the wall of the spiral staircase (satiric as it is intended to be), nor the conclusion which finds a duke acting on behalf of the wise and benevolent King (Louis XIV) rescuing Orgon from his stupidity in turning over his fortune to Tartuffe is plausible in this setting. Identifying Tartuffe's rescuer as an investigator acting on behalf of a District Attorney would help a bit (as a couple of contemporary references have made their way into the script, why is there not one here where it is most needed?). Nevertheless, there is little in Moliere's Tartuffe that has resonance in this updated setting.
More damaging is the misinterpretation of some key roles. Most egregious as it sets the tone for the play is that of Jane Welch in the role of Madame Pernelle, Orgon's mother. Welch bestrides the stage stentoriously reading her lines with authority and confidence. She seems as authoritative as the Tartuffe she so greatly admires. Nothing funny about her. To establish the tone of the comedy, Madame Pernelle must be a doddering, silly old fool who would not be listened to by anyone except for the fact that she has tied her moral preachings to the pieties of Tartuffe. Furthermore, Welch speaks in a sing song rhythm, pausing at and emphasizing each rhymed word.
John C. Vennema's line readings and accent are real fine, but he underplays Orgon's bumptious foolishness. Moliere makes it clear that Orgon is a comic fool, but Vennema mostly shows us his stubbornness. Erik Steele comes across as blander than necessary as Orgon's reasonable, straight laced brother-in-law. Dressed entirely in black, Ray Chambers is a competent Tartuffe in all aspects. However, Chambers fails to find that extra spark of creative villainy which could energize an audience.
There are two really fine performances here. Hats off to Wendy Rich Stetson for her exuberant performance as Dorine, the sensible and outspoken maid-servant. Stetson has a truly delightful comic persona. Her clear, fluent and effervescent line readings delivered with a charming Texas twang are most amusing despite the near vacuum which surrounds them. The role of Dorine tends to dominate the first forty or so minutes of any production of Tartuffe, and most productions seem somewhat out of balance when she largely disappears thereafter. However, given Stetson's strong performance in a generally lackluster production, Dorine's disappearance is especially disheartening.
Taking up more than her fair share of the slack is Hollis McCarthy as Elmire. She is charming, engaging and femininely comic as she exposes Tartuffe's true nature to Orgon. Morgan Rosse does a fine chirpy comic turn as Mariane. Her Mariane is possessed of a whininess which requires a broader, more comic apoplexy from her foolish father.
The set of Organ's house (described in the program as McMansion) by David M. Barber is impressive. The evocative and interesting costumes are the work of Thom Heyer.
The Two River's Tartuffe is the world premiere of a new version by Constance Congdon from a translation by Virginia Scott. The translation sits very well on the ear, and does not seem to be the cause of the laughter deficiency. On the other hand, if the updated setting is ever to be relevant and productive, Congdon would have to set her sights on a more far reaching and creative, carefully considered adaptation.
Tartuffe continues performances (Eves: Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Mats: Wed. 1 p.m.; Sat. & Sun. 3 p.m.) through December 2, 2006 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org/
Tartuffe by Moliere; a new version by Constance
Congdon from a translation by Virginia Scott; directed by