Let it sound from every satellite and blare from every broadsheet: Tartuffism is the order of the age. A taste for scandal has turned our leaders into absurd pharisees, and after a brief period of remission, the Religious Right is taking its revenge by publicly denouncing degenerate kabuki characters who carry purses. Somehow, this seems like an apt time for a revival of interest in Molière, whose scathing satirical sorties against zealotry and corruption nearly lost him his head 350 years ago. In the Warehouse District, Theatre de la Jeune Lune is showing off a new translation of Tartuffe, which offers no particular parallels to modern American life, but which certainly leaves Molière's sardonic wit no worse for wear.
The temptation when staging Tartuffe is to plop the play in a modern context and pepper the rhymed couplets with references to contemporary bilge like Teletubbies and televangelism. Thankfully, director Dominique Serrand and translator David Ball resist, cleaving instead to the play's commedia dell'arte roots. From the opening swells of baroque chamber music filling the cavernous white hall that is the play's setting, their Tartuffe is very much a period piece. Two actors, draped in white and bearing candles, enter from side doors and settle languorously in front of a painting of a reclining nude. These are the beautiful and brainless children of Orgon, Damis (Joel Spence) and Mariane (Sarah Agnew). Their midnight idyll is disturbed by the entrance of Madame Pernelle (a masked and dragged-out Luverne Seifert), the ancient and cantankerous matriarch of the household. As rosy dawn begins to glow through the windows, we learn that mischief is afoot. Orgon (Vincent Gracieux) has been duped by Tartuffe, a charlatan posing as a spiritual guru, and is planning to betroth his daughter to him despite the fact that she is in love with Valere (also Luverne Seifert, this time in more manly garb).
For the next hour, Jeune Lune's production is ridiculously funny. After the night scene, Orgon comes blustering into the house through a pair of double doors upstage, flooding the set with pale light. He is so entirely in the thrall of the impostor that when informed that his wife is ill, he responds by asking, "And Tartuffe?" The play's raisonneur--the voice of reason--Cleante (Stephen Cartmell), argues passionately for Mariane, but Orgon is determined to follow his course. For her part, Mariane, the hapless soubrette, flops and flutters like an animated porcelain doll, complete with a thick layer of powder and a smudge of rouge on either cheek. Barbara Berlovitz is particularly funny as the brassy maid Dorine, standing on a table to denounce Tartuffe, delivering cheeky romantic advice to Mariane, and artfully maneuvering her back into Valere's arms. The whole is delivered with the flawless timing of a commedia-ballet.
There are few characters in the history of theater so thoroughly slandered before making an appearance as Tartuffe. When Steven Epp finally slithers onto the stage, he seems the very embodiment of charlatanism, smirking diabolically and striking mock iconographic poses of martyrdom. With him are two mute manservants (Nathan Keepers and Robert Rosen), who look like unholy hybrids of David Bowie and Frankenstein's monster and ape Tartuffe's every move. We learn that the villain is not satisfied with free rein over the house and Orgon's daughter; he wants all of Orgon's wealth, as well as the dupe's wife, Emire (Cynthia Lohman). As Tartuffe's insidious plot unfolds, Jeune Lune's production takes a turn for the tragic. Poor Emire's clothes are scattered across the floor, Tartuffe is pawing at her legs with lascivious abandon, lightning is crashing outside, and the acerbic comedy seems to have suddenly mutated into a melodramatic opera.
For two reasons, the shift to gloomy tragedy is somewhat disappointing. The first is that the tone and rhythm of the translation turns prosaic, nearly abandoning its previous rhymed verse in favor of rather uninspired dramatic prose. The second is that Molière's stylized comedy does not engender tragedy. The characters are all so ridiculously exaggerated that they become caricatures instead of individual personalities. We may sympathize with Orgon for his ignorance, but he is such a buffoon that we can hardly identify with him or empathize with his dejection once he discovers Tartuffe's treachery. When the denouement comes, it is as much through a pure deus ex machina as the mechanics of the narrative. Tartuffe gets his martyrdom and justice is served, but we're left feeling a bit unsatisfied by the whole business. With warm memories of the brilliant first act, we leave the theater wishing that Jeune Lune would stick to what they do best and let Molière do the same.
One often hears it said that tragedy and comedy are simply matters of degree--the difference between courageous people buffeted by outrageous fortune and cowards strutting and fretting through difficult circumstances of their own devising. By this logic, Tennessee Williams would be a comic genius. His particular lurid shtick is so familiar that even when well-staged, it can end up feeling like self-parody. Nevertheless, if any local company has the nerve to do something new with Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, it's Pillsbury House Theatre.