Monday, November 20, 2017

Tartuffe: Tripping over Molière

Melissa Miller and Brett Gelman in Huntington Theatre's Tartuffe. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I can’t think of a great playwright who stymies directors with the frequency of Molière. (That may not be true in France; my experience of Molière productions is limited to Canada, the U.S. and England.) His satirical high comedies are vibrant and hilarious on the page, but on stage they tend to fall into two categories: lethal academic readings in which the actors seem straitjacketed by their seventeenth-century costumes and – far more common over the last several decades – showy high-concept editions, heavy on farce, that push relentlessly for laughs. Peter DuBois’s Tartuffe at the Huntington Theatre is an example of the second, with one exception: I can’t figure out what the hell the concept is supposed to be, and there’s no director’s note in the program to provide assistance. The quote from DuBois in the press material, “Boston is going to see 2017 alive on stage within the framework of a 17th century farce, and the result will be satirical, smart, and a gut-buster,” doesn’t help. And what’s the significance of the lipstick-smeared pig on the poster? The setting is contemporary, though Tartuffe himself (played by Brett Gelman), the pious hypocrite whose hold over the aristocrat Orgon (Frank Wood) his beleaguered family is struggling to loosen, has been dressed by Anita Yavich as a cross between a Medieval monk and an imam. 2017 is represented not satirically but superficially, through a series of recognizable accoutrements, the most emphatic of which is a smart phone that Orgon’s son Damis (Matthew Bretschneider) uses to take selfies, and the substitution of a soldier in camouflage gear (Omar Robinso) for a messenger from the king to enact the happy ending. If DuBois has some idea in mind about how the play reflects our world, he hasn’t worked it out. The opening is a series of blackout sketches that mostly frame the two men in various comic-strip interactions that are clearly meant to be hilarious but are merely puzzling. The physical comedy is frantic and the actors have been coached to sprint through their lines, which at least has the effect of bringing the show in at two hours and ten minutes, including intermission – though, as habitual theatregoers know to our sorrow, time is relative, and it’s a long two hours. (I started checking my watch after forty-five minutes.)

Molière’s characters are so stylized that actors who try to think them through in psychological terms invariably get lost. A grad school friend who was writing his dissertation on Molière used to talk about the moment in the second half of Tartuffe when Orgon’s wife Elmire plants him under a table to see for himself what he’s thus far refused to believe, that Tartuffe has been trying to seduce her behind Orgon’s back. What ensues is the funniest scene in the play: Orgon stays under that damn table so long, before finally emerging in a rage and excoriating his friend, that Elmire, who is pretending to succumb to Tartuffe’s attentions, almost runs out of plausible ways to stave them off. My friend argued convincingly that the scene has its own logic and that its point is the farce scenario, so you can’t play it for psychological realism – any more than you would expect an extended routine in a classic silent comedy to make psychological sense. But in the Huntington version Orgon keeps peeking out from under the table while the seduction is proceeding, which violates the logic of the scene and prompts you to try to figure out if DuBois is going for some unclear take on the character’s psychology. (He can’t believe his own eyes? He’s enjoying his wife’s discomfort? He’s getting turned on?) The truth is that almost nothing the actors do on the Huntington stage makes any kind of sense, so you get the impression that every time they came up with an idea in rehearsal DuBois invited them to include it in a sure-what-the-hell spirit. Molière wrote Valère (Gabriel Brown), the suitor of Orgon’s daughter Mariane (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), as a painfully earnest young Lothario whose love for her sometimes drives him to behave foolishly (as does hers for him) but who digs in his own pocket to help Orgon when a combination of Tartuffe’s scheming and his own naiveté gets him in trouble with the law. For some reason, in this production Valère offers his prospective father-in-law the money distractedly and without much apparent interest in Orgon’s predicament, so his affect contradicts his noble behavior. Cléante (Matthew J. Harris), the brother of Orgon’s second wife Elmire (Melissa Miller), is one of those Molière characters – like Philinte in The Misanthrope – whose balanced point of view operates as a foil to the folly of the protagonist. But here he’s a droning, pretentious narcissist, even though nothing in the text supports that reading.

You can get drive yourself crazy trying to suss out the reasoning behind what you see on the stage. Why, for instance, is Valère wearing an avocado suit with a peacock-feather print (possibly the ugliest costume I’ve ever seen in a play) while Mariane is dressed like a little girl at a birthday party, in red tulle? The overheated shenanigans make almost all the actors look bad, including Jane Pfitsch as Dorine, the maid, and Paula Plum as Orgon’s unpleasant, critical mother, Madame Pernelle; Bretschneider and Brown are the worst casualties. (Their hijinks make them look like rank amateurs, though their bios tell another tale.) There are two exceptions. Gelman is a clever comic actor, and his performance is quite enjoyable if you can forget that he’s supposed to be playing a character named Tartuffe in a famous play by Molière; he’s more like Tevye with a mean streak. By contrast, Melissa Miller’s worldly-wise Elmire is perfectly consistent with the character as the playwright conceived it, so she comes off rather well by comparison with her unfortunate fellow actors. Instead of using Richard Wilbur’s delightful verse translation, which converts the alexandrine meter into iambic pentameter, DuBois has chosen a more recent one by Ranjit Bolt – also in rhymed couplets but dull and flat by comparison with the Wilbur. It doesn’t seem to make much difference that the translation is in verse, anyway; since the actors haven’t bothered with the scansion, they might just as well be speaking in prose. What the hell was DuBois thinking?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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