Religious hypocrisy and man's capacity for self-delusion are two subjects which will probably never be lacking in contemporary relevance. Both get an artful going-over in Moliere's Tartuffe, now being presented by Mustard Seed Theatre at Fontbonne University. It's an interesting choice for Mustard Seed both because of the large cast required and because the Theatre's mission (as stated on their web site) is "exploring our relationship with God and our ethical responsibility to the world."
On the other hand, a company which has successfully performed Fiddler on the Roof in Fontbonne's black box theatre clearly has no fear of putting on big shows in a small space. And who should be better situated to produce a play about the abuse of religion than a company whose focus is directly on ethics and spirituality?
The Mustard Seed production of Tartuffe is a winner: it's an entertaining, thought-provoking presentation of one of the comic masterpieces of the Western literary canon. The company manages something which is very difficult with period drama: they give a performance which is true to the historical period (Tartuffe was first performed at Versailles in 1664) yet is also explicable and enjoyable to an audience member completely unfamiliar with the period and its dramatic conventions. This is a wigs-and-all production set in the 17th century but which, thanks to the skill of the cast members as well as Richard Wilbur's wonderful translation, makes intuitive sense in the 21st century as well.
The main criticism I have of this production is that it suffers from an inconsistency of acting styles. Most annoying is the highly skilled J. Samuel Davis as Orgon: his scenery-chewing performance and tendency to play directly to the audience is particularly jarring because most of the other actors do such a great job in understanding how their roles fit into the totality of the play and making this a successful ensemble production. Remember: the title of Moliere's play is Tartuffe not Orgon.
A few of the younger actors have some trouble with the text, particularly Kareem Deanes (Damis) who has a tendency to rush his lines and to act as if he were in a contemporary television production rather than a 17th century play. David Chandler (Valere) gets much too carried away with clowning and flopping his handkerchief about although his performance does calm down as the evening progresses. And I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Richard Lewis as Monsieur Loyal use a Pepe le Pew accent and wear ghastly white makeup, but it just doesn't fit with the rest of the production.
But there's so much to enjoy in Mustard Seed's production of Tartuffe which more than compensates for those negatives. Colleen Backer delivers another show-stealing performance as Dorine, the wise servant who both participates in the play's action and comments on it. Gary Wayne Barker shows both power and restraint as the scoundrel Tartuffe, and Kelly Ryan is excellent in the difficult role of Orgon's wife Elmire. You can learn a lot about the craft of acting from their performances: all three find a way to do make their roles effective, memorable and personal without violating the overall tone of the production or overstepping their places within the play's rather intricate structure.
The historical period is beautifully established by Dunsi Dai's multilevel set, J.C. Krajicek's costumes and Kareem Deanes' sound design. This production makes particularly good use of props, so Josie Zeugin, Chelsea Russell and Samantha Baugh deserve a special shout-out for supplying them, as does director Deanna Jent and the cast for finding ways to use them so effectively. I'm hard put to think of a recent production of any play which integrates food so effectively into the show and you won't believe what Gary Wayne Barker does with a pot of jam. The only weak link in the technical elements is the wigs which often pose problems in low-budget productions. Mustard Seed seems to have used women's wigs for the men and women alike and done insufficient styling with most of them, resulting in several characters with messy long hair more appropriate to Howard Stern than to gentlemen in 17th century France.
Tartuffe continues at Mustard Seed Theatre at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre through May 3, 2010. Ticket information is available from www.mustardseedtheatre.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and 314-719-8060. Mustard Seed Theatre's 2010-2011 season will kick off with Crumbs from the Table of Joy which they will perform August 27-September 12, 2010.
* Denotes members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers.