By Bridgette M. Redman
Whether it is Stephen Colbert’s latest show or Moliere’s 1664 farce, sometimes the most biting forms of truth can be found in the heartiest of laughter.
If the original actors performed “Tartuffe” with the relish and commitment that the Michigan Shakespeare Festival actors did this weekend, it is little wonder France’s archbishop threatened to excommunicate any who watched it. It is, after all, a persuasive farce showing how a charlatan can wear the outer face of piety as a means for personal financial and political gain. Even though Moliere, through the voice of the play’s (mostly) rational brother Cleante, is quick to praise true piety and warn his brother against lumping all religious men with the outrageous behavior of Tartuffe, the play still stands as a condemnation of those who lead others into scandalous behavior by invoking the name of heaven.
Don’t think, though, that you’ll be attending a sermon or agitprop theater. No, Director Robert Kauzlaric plays this one straight, which is to say with all the affectations of a French farce with its over-the-top characters, quick pacing, humorous wordplay and intense physical humor. Every moment is played for laughs while always supporting the furtherance of the story.
Moliere’s tale is of Orgon, an upright man who has served his country well in a civil war and has now fallen under the influence of Tartuffe, a man who makes much show of his piety and religious devotion. So skilled is he in attributing to heaven’s will all that he does, that he manipulates Orgon into falling completely under his sway. Much to the dismay of his family, Orgon disrupts their lives utterly to elevate and uplift Tartuffe. Tartuffe, meanwhile, manipulates Orgon’s devotion to his greatest advantage, whether it be helping himself to his purse, his reputation, his property, his wife or his daughter.
From the first syllable the actors speak, it is apparent that the audience is in for a wild ride. Orgon’s mother, Mmme. Pernelle, storms onto the stage. Janet Haley takes a role that is prone to screeching and turns it into a show stealer with the night’s most effective and uproarious use of a prop – a fan that accentuates her every point and terrorizes all the other family members. Haley launches the play with zeal and energy and if the production has a major flaw, it is that once she stalks off, she is absent from the stage until the final scenes.
Her absence, though, is balanced by an ensemble of actors in which there is no weak link. Each performer shows equal and total commitment in an impressively consistent manner throughout the four acts of this classic farce. Buz Davis as Orgon is a man in love who swings between passions with agile vocal and facial gymnastics. He turns his puppy dog eyes upon Tartuffe with all the devotion of a love-sick lad who has newly discovered the hormonal wrenching that gets dubbed as romance.
It is a play filled with long monologues that could be dangerously dull as they stretch out into speechifying, were it not for the expert handling of those speeches by each of the actors. They play with the language and the rhyming couplets, making all of it a sheer delight to hear. When the speeches elongate, the actors make it work through their verbal skill and physical reactions. William Irwin as Cleante is particularly skilled at this tumbling with the language’s structure using gyrations that might hurt the amateur at home who gave it a try. The scenes where Davis and Irwin argue with strained amicability become a playground of sliding couplets, swinging rhymes and a merry-go-round of moralizing banter.
Saren Nofs-Snyder romps through the role of Dorine, the daughter’s lady’s maid and the most outspoken member of a verbose family. Nofs-Snyder joyously mocks her employers, not hesitating to tell the emperor he is naked, even when it drives him to fury. She is a wonderful foil for the obedient daughter Mariane, played by Christina Flynn. Flynn commits to the stereotyping of the role with fluttering eyelids, heavy sighs and docile smiles that would be nauseating to anyone with even a speck of feminism were it not so obviously played in mockery of those conventions it displays. She is matched by Matt Anderson’s performance as Valere, the young man engaged to marry her if Tartuffe doesn’t spoil their plans.
Orgon’s only son, Damis, played by Jason Phillip Kellerman, inherits his father’s passion, though his morals incline more toward fighting and drinking than kneeling and praying. His insouciant physicality belies the hot temper that works its way out upon the very mention of Tartuffe and the influence he has over his father.
Susaan Jamshidi begins the play as window dressing, Orgon’s second wife Elmire who enjoys entertaining but has recently experienced a bout of illness which has inspired complete unconcern on the part of her husband. Her role expands and Jamshidi is delightful as her response to Tartuffe’s advances grow ever more comical. She is the virtuous wife who lacks her husband’s impulsivity, making her the perfect bait to expose Tartuffe’s true nature.
Alan Ball plays the title role, a character who barely makes it to the stage in the first half except in the conversations of others. Once he does appear, he wears his overweening hypocrisy with convincing aplomb, playing Orgon like a concertmaster on a Stradivarius. He and Daniel Mozurkewich’s silent servant Laurent bully the household, remaking it into their image. Ball presents a despicable character that the audience can’t get enough of as his hypocrisy is so over the top as to be amusing to those whose lives he is not wrecking.
Costume Designer Melanie Schuessler and Scenic Designer Jeromy Hopgood help to set the farce at the end of the 17th century with elaborate costuming and a French classical living room. The costumes in particular emphasize the frippery of the period with fancy lace and ornamentation on bustled gowns and short pants. The iconic wigs, particularly on Orgon and Tartuffe, further fix the play in period.
That said, “Tartuffe” is not merely a morality play for the French of the 1600s. Four centuries have passed, but charlatans still use the name of religion to sway the uncritical devout to support contemptible actions for their personal gain. They, perhaps, would find the Michigan Shakespeare Festival farce uncomfortable. For all else, though, it is a romp that inspires belly-deep laughter at the performance of highly skilled professionals.
Michigan Shakespeare Festival at Baughman Theatre at Jackson Community College Potter Center, 2111 Emmons Rd., Jackson. Plays in repertory through Aug. 6. $30-$36. 517-998-3673. http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com