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Tartuffe Buried Under Directorial Excess

Also see Bob's review of School For Wives

Director Daniel Fish's distracting and distancing, technologically inadequate, videographic-centric production of Moliere's Tartuffe (The Imposter) is a misstep for the usually excellent director.

Tartuffe tells the story of a religious imposter whose rule is forced upon his household by the gullible merchant Orgon. Orgon, who is supported by his foolish mother, intends for his nubile daughter Mariane to marry Tartuffe. Mariane is in love with Valere. Tartuffe has his lecherous eye on a sexual liaison with Elmire, Orgon's youngish wife.

Almost three quarters of the stage is occupied by a large, deep, black-walled room with (I estimate) a seven-foot high video screen built into the rear wall and a second one built into the wall at stage right. A man, who appears to be a museum guard sits in a stark modern chair in the far rear corner. At far stage left is a much smaller box extending into the wings which houses a luxuriously decorated and furnished 17th century bedroom. Much of the action occurring in this room is substantially obscured from the view of all (how much so varies with ones seat location).

As we enter the theatre, the female videographer moves about the bedroom photographing the bed which we see simultaneously on the two screens. The members of the household who appear in the opening scene gather one by one and lounge together on the bed along with an elegant dog (whom I cannot recall seeing after the play's beginning). The videographer, who wears casual work clothes including jeans, wanders about the stage (more often, the bedroom) for most of the play. The images from her camera appear on the two screens. The image is blurry. At times, she stops photographing and there is no image on the screen. There seems to be no logic as to when the video is no or off. The sound from the bedroom is not infrequently distant and echoed. We have to watch the actors on the screen while their seemingly disembodied voices come from out of sight actors distant from the screen. The exposition of the first scene is largely lost because of a combination of incomprehensibility, the inability to see who is talking and the distractions of actors playing to a camera and the videographer. Anyone not familiar with Tartuffe will miss a big chunk of the set-up. If I were not familiar with Tartuffe, I would not have then known who was whom, or their relationships (I would not have known that Elmire was a youngish stepmother at any time from watching this production).

At times, the camera is on those who speak; at times, it is on others; at times, it is seeking an image. At times, it offers us indistinct, small blurred images through the bedroom door into the large black room; at times, the camera is brought into the black room. At times, characters speaking to one another are three-quarters of the large stage away from each other in separate rooms, and we have to watch the video picture (with disembodied voice) of the character who is playing to the videographer in the bedroom.

The only gain here is that, on a few occasions, we can observe in close-up the reactions of characters to others being spoken by others. Of course, a skilled director, which Fish surely is, could direct so that we would see these reactions without resorting to video. Late in the play, a fixed overhead camera shows us a few (negative exposure) images on the video screens. There may be some reason why any of this array of video effects is used or not used at any particular moment, but, except for the few reaction close-ups, they appear to be used in a random hodgepodge.

Why does the household spend so much time in the bedroom? Whose bedroom is it, anyway? Why does the museum guard (as I assume he is) wander on and off? Why is the camera at first hidden from Tartuffe when he will later play directly to it? Why does the museum guard move to the bedroom to play the King's bailiff in the final scene, and deliver the message resolving the status of the characters to a camera with his back to the audience? As far as can observe, director Daniel Fish does not answer any of these questions.

Oh, of course, Tartuffe is a farce. However, despite some scenes and lines which are so inherently funny that they cannot help but amuse us (Richard Wilbur's superb verse translation is employed here) and a few farcical moments which Fish allows (principally to Valere), this is a very, very dark Tartuffe. It is largely played as if it were a drama and there is no foppishness on hand. After the intermission, there are very real dividends to this approach. Tartuffe, who is played as a vicious satyr, violently assaults the maid Dorine roughly, grabbing her vagina and throwing her into a wall. There is about a 15-minute section here two hours into the play centering around Tartuffe's tryst with Elmire while Organ hides beneath a table which grabs at the gut. It extends to Elmire's words to Orgon immediately thereafter. However, although Orgon's also eschews the inherent humor in her role in the play's first scene, her continued fealty to Tartuffe after thus is so over the top funny that the mood instantly changes, although it feels as if Fish would not have it so.

Although there is a dark side apparent when Tartuffe is played in traditional farcical fashion, Fish, for a time, makes a solid case for his dark vision. However, his effective scenes come far too late. For those, who have seen video used from time to time for more than a decade, Fish's work here feels very retro garde. There is a credit for Alexandra Eaton for video design. Eaton may be the hard working young woman who lugs her camera about for most of the evening.

Fish has assembled a very solid cast, although his interpretation of the play dampens some of the pleasure that several of these roles would normally have. Zach Grenier is powerfully hateful in the title role. Michelle Beck is a charming and sympathetic Mariane. Christina Rouner's Elmire is a cipher until she is called on to be the outraged and abused victim of Tartuffe and Orgon. At that point, Rouner performs with heart wrenching delicacy and power. Sally Wingert (Dorine) and Beth Dixon (Orgon's mother) perform solidly within the narrow, non-traditional perimeters set for them by their director. Daniel Cameron Talbott as Valere performs his comic scene well. Christopher Donahue as Cleante, Orgon's brother-in-law, has a straight, voice-of-reason role, which he performs with appropriate strength and dignity.

The well designed set is by John Conklin. The walls of the large room are handsome rows of rectangular panels, and the bedroom is quite lush.

Director Daniel Fish is likely at a stage in his career where he is averse to not taking risks. Audiences who are put-off by his eccentric, poorly conceived, videocentric Tartuffe should consider that the McCarter would not be the exciting theatre that it is if it did not take high wire risks.

Tartuffe (The Imposter) continues performances (Eves.: Tues./Wed,/Thurs./Sun. 7:30 p.m.; Fri./Sat. 8 p.m.; Mats.: Sat. 3 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. —No 7:30 PM perf. 10/28) through October 28, 2007 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-5050; online:

Tartuffe (The Imposter) by Moliere (Translated into English Verse by Richard Wilbur); directed by Daniel Fish

Mme. Pernelle, Orgon's Mother………………….Beth Dixon
Orgon……………………………………….Michael Rudko
Elmire, Orgon's Wife……………………Christina Rouner
Damis, Orgon's Son…………………………Nick Westrate
Mariane, Orgon's Daughter…………………..Michelle Beck
Valere, Mariane's Intended…...Daniel Cameron Talbott
Cleante, Orgon's Bro-In-Law………christopher Donahue
Tartuffe, A Hypocrite……………………………zach Grenier
Dorine, Lady's Maid…………………………..Sally Wingert
M. Loyal, A Bailiff…………………………...Andy Paterson
Police Officer………………………………………Tom Story

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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