The Moliere Cycle
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
January 5, 2006
Tartuffe is running in repertory with two other Molière plays as part of The Molière Cycle at Classic Stage Company, featuring the work of Columbia graduate students that form The Young Company. Their tongues nimbly fence with the text’s mannered cadences, the offspring of the alarmingly verbose marriage of a Molière play and a Christopher Hampton translation. Legendary voice-training guru Kristin Linklater, on staff for this production and a full-time instructor at Columbia, has seen to it that each actor’s lines are crystal-clear, inflected, and prodded along at a vigorous pace. Like a team of muscular Clydesdales, the resulting production is stoic, bumpily moving us along from plot point to plot point with proud competence. It is quite apparent that each actor understands exactly what all their heightened speeches mean. The trouble is, Molière wrote comedies. And comedies, be they mannered or vulgar, are not measured by the yardsticks of running time, diction, or clarity. They are measured in laughs, and this production provides a meager ration indeed.
We certainly do not leave with a lack of understanding, academic though it may be, as to what Molière is satirizing. Tartuffe (Luis Moreno) is a poverty-stricken hypocrite of piety who wins his way into free housing and the good graces of the aristocratic Orgon (Walker Lewis), who hangs on to his every sanctimonious word. We see quickly that Tartuffe is merely using religion to puppeteer his way into luxury and ease, withholding from himself none of the indulgent niceties of Orgon’s household, including his shocked wife Elmire (Laura Heidinger), who rebuffs his advances. We are not alone in our perception: the other members of the household are revolted by the true nature of Tartuffe, and try to reason with Orgon. However, Orgon remains oblivious to the flaws of his guest, and spites his doubting household by drawing up documents to make Tartuffe his heir and betroth him to his already-engaged daughter. Tartuffe gets caught in a clever scheme that reveals his designs on Elmire in the presence of Orgon, but when Orgon tries to kick him out, Tartuffe asserts his ownership of the house through the aforementioned documents, evicts his host, and betrays him to the king. The king is shrewd, Tartuffe is foiled, and the lives of the maligned are restored.
Tried-and-true stock characters of commedia dell’arte, Molière’s background, are here: the dim-witted master, the clever and resourceful servant, the love-stricken ingénue, the hypocritical zealot. Even a neo-classical novice could discern how these characters are going to interact and solve the problems they create well before the actual wrap-up, so the actors must create spontaneity through a subversive, percolating inner-life, better known as fun. It allows the audience to feel joy: joy at the obtuseness of Orgon, joy at the sheer gall of Tartuffe, joy that the follies of the powerful are perceived only by uneducated servants doing all the work. These archetypes are written in the extreme, and, if played to the hilt, the stakes of each situation—however mundane, however predictable—go through the roof. The forced, wooden timing that lays heavily on every scene of this production makes it seem like an intelligent classroom reading in a Theatre History course—enough to get the audience ready for the exam, if only any of us were interested in being back in school.
Director Brian Kulick, the artistic director of Classic Stage and never one to shy away from an offbeat choice, has Tartuffe and the household under his influence adhering to a sort of Hindu mysticism, rather than the arch Christianity that Molière was undoubtedly targeting. Tartuffe is costumed by Oana Botez-Ban in the manner of a yogi, with a white turban and kurta. When the entire household is forced by Orgon to wear such garments, it is reminiscent of the Transcendental Meditation hype of the sixties and seventies, when Mia Farrow, The Beatles, Shirley MacLaine and many others all went to India to see the Maharishi and cleanse themselves with the inner peace that so eludes us in the West. It is an intriguing concept, but ultimately feels arbitrary, if for no other reason than Western audiences will more quickly recognize arch Christianity than its Hindu counterpart, and will have a stronger reaction when a Christian Tartuffe demonstrates his fraudulence. The Hinduism choice leaves the audience curious about Tartuffe’s attitudes, and a curious audience is a quiet one, making the task of getting laughs more Sisyphusian than it needs to be.
Two actors are notably successful, however, in eliciting a guffaw from the audience from time to time: Laura Heidinger and Luis Moreno. As Elmire, Heidinger’s fury with the slow uptake of her husband during the plot to reveal the lecherous intentions of Tartuffe is fever-pitched and hilarious. Moreno’s Tartuffe is highly enjoyable when he lets his piety slip, in such moments as his true enjoyment of an opulent meal, or his excitement for sex with Elmire driving him into a frenzy of religious garment-stripping and justifications. But even these performances leave a yearning for the further delight that might have resulted if the all the actors’ engines were driven with as much playfulness as eloquence.