City Theatre Company updates Molière's satire in a cheeky yet entertaining fashion
Reviewed by Hannah Kenah, Fri., July 31, 2009
City Theatre, through Aug. 16
Running time: 1 hr, 45 min
The success of City Theatre Company's staging of Tartuffe is a testament to both Charles P. Stites' fondness for the story – evident in his adaptation and in his performance of the title role – as well as the strength of Molière's famous comedy. A program note explains that when Stites first read Tartuffe as a teen, he was struck by the similarity between the charlatans of the 1600s and the politicians of the day. So City Theatre Company's production is set in present-day Texas, and the new context works amazingly well. Molière was a forward-thinking guy: His maid is as outspoken as her master, his women do not take suppression quietly, and most poignantly, he is suspicious of zealots. The play, denounced by the church in its day, manages to express an important social critique while at the same time providing an entertaining story.
Tartuffe is a tale of faith gone wrong, of piety leveraged for the gain of power, money, and, hopefully, sex. Orgon is a wealthy man who has become enamored of a seemingly religious, destitute gentleman by the name of Tartuffe. He takes Tartuffe into his home and offers him everything under the roof, from the best pieces of meat to copious amounts of money to his daughter's hand in marriage. So duped is Orgon by false piety, he essentially denounces his family. The family, on the other hand, sees Tartuffe for what he is, a fraud and a criminal, but they struggle to show the light to blinded Orgon. Throughout, Orgon's brother-in-law Cleante serves as the mouthpiece for Molière's views, urging moderation over extremity, humble faith over grandstanding. Cleante tells Orgon, "Phony piety is just as common as phony courage."
Stites' notion to set this 17th century play in a contemporary world was a good one, and his production flows smoothly and enjoyably around Molière's story. The adaptation makes the language feel modern but still elegant. Stites' direction honors the robust physicality of Molière's imagination. The set, with its giant cross and hunting trophies and large portrait of Obama, conveys the sense of a religious, political, and wealthy household. The cast does good work across the board, particularly Wray Crawford in the crucial role of Orgon, who must serve as a foil to the title character; Crawford makes Orgon first a compelling fool, then a sympathetic repenter. Tartuffe might easily be played as a finger-tapping, beard-twirling embodiment of evil, but Stites takes a more interesting approach. His Tartuffe is ever so earthly – a spitting, drooling, sniveling lump of vileness. It's a great combination of the pathetic with the dangerous.
The show has the most fun with its present-day take toward the end of the night. The original includes a deus-ex-machina-style twist in which an enlightened king saves the day. In this version, the officer who comes to arrest Orgon and instead, to everyone's surprise and delight, arrests Tartuffe, gestures toward the portrait of Obama and goes into an amusing speech: "We live under a leader who is an enemy to lying. His deep soul is blessed with a keen perception. He's far too brilliant to be fooled by empty zeal." The officer even works in a Patriot Act joke. On opening night, the audience was greatly amused by this cheeky yet effective meeting of the old material with the new setting. Ultimately, Tartuffe is about moderation, about rational thought and true faith over corruption and zeal. Molière and City Theatre Company have wrapped the message in an entertaining and well-executed evening of theatre. Any time you can use Barack Obama as a deus-ex-machina device, you're doing something right. And you know Tartuffe has hit home when the actor in the title role gets playfully booed at curtain call.