The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Molière’s classic is bright and energetic.
Tartuffe by Molière. Translated from the French by Ranjit Bolt. Directed by Peter DuBois. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Avenue of the Arts / Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, MA, through December 10.
By Erik Nikander
Given the permanence of hypocrisy and false piety, Molière’s classic play Tartuffe will always have an eager and receptive audience. 353 years have elapsed since the play’s first performance, and its portrait of humanity’s weaknesses is no less relevant. This either reflects Molière’s keen, insightful wit or the stunted momentum of social progress; perhaps both. The Huntington Theatre Company’s bright, energetic production of Tartuffe is largely great fun, defined by a bold visual aesthetic and a cast filled with comedic talent. The staging stumbles on occasion due to some odd creative choices, but by and large the show is dominated by a vigorous atmosphere of hilarity.
Tartuffe takes place in the house of Orgon (Frank Wood), a Parisian gentleman of wealth and status. He’s a valued, upstanding member of the community with a loyal and tight-knit family. But his life is being thrown into chaos thanks to the newest member of the household: Tartuffe (Brett Gelman). Though Orgon and his mother, Madame Pernelle (Paula Plum), adore Tartuffe, the rest of the family sees him for the charlatan he is. This foul and false believer openly lusts after Orgon’s wife Elmire (Melissa Miller). Led by their brash maid Dorine (Jane Pfitsch), the family hatches a plan to open Orgon’s eyes to Tartuffe’s trickery before he can marry his daughter Marianne (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) to the lout.
From the opening scene, it’s clear that the cast is having a terrific time reveling in the play’s freewheeling energy and satirical bite. Jane Pfitsch as Dorine gives an especially captivating performance; clad in crisp military garb with her hair cut short, she provides a much-needed slap of harsh reality to the self-involved airheads populating the house of Orgon. One such airhead is Mariane, played with flighty relish by Sarah Oakes Muirhead. Her hilarious “lovers’ quarrel” with Valère (Gabriel Brown), the man she truly wants to marry, is a highlight of the play’s first half. The cast is large and skillful, so it is challenge to give each member their proper accolades. Suffice it to say that Frank Wood adds plenty of aplomb to Orgon’s spinelessness and susceptibility, and Matthew J. Harris, as his brother-in-law Cléante, provides a welcome infusion of rationality into the play’s madcap proceedings.
As Tartuffe’s titular character, Brett Gelman delves deep into the iconic faker’s scuzzy lechery. In the play’s climactic scene, in which Elmire tries to trap Tartuffe by coercing him to seduce her in front of her husband’s eyes, Miller and Gelman both give the contretemps their all, delivering unflinching physical performances that are both funny and deeply uncomfortable, especially in our post-Weinstein world. Miller imbues Elmire with dignity and loyalty, qualities that confront Tartuffe’s slimy, covetous nature head-on. Orgon’s inaction at this critical moment is hilarious, infuriating, and heartbreaking all at once; his passivity in the face of his wife’s discomfort rings true to a depressing degree. It’s a hard scene to stomach, but Molière described his work as a “public mirror” meant to show humanity its own sins. Don’t blame the playwright if the reflection is tawdry.
Though the play has its darker moments, it manages to stay amusing and frothy overall Tartuffe is in verse, which gives the comedy an air of almost Seussian whimsy. This lightheartedness is furthered by the overall visual design, which makes both the characters and the setting pop with color and opulence. Alexander Dodge’s scenic design is dominated by white and gold, featuring tall doors stretching upward into spacial excess. The set is built in multiple layers, including staircases and a back balcony, which provide the cast and director ample room to stretch their comedic legs. The skyscraper painted on the backdrop, however, suffered from its display of a distractingly wonky perspective. In addition, the play boasts plenty of clever touches in the props department. The bar at the back of the living room, for instance, consists of a wooden cross surrounded by liquor bottles; not exactly a church-appropriate display, but one which Tartuffe would likely approve of. Also, the high-powered telescope on the balcony appears to be pointed downward. Does the house of Orgon perhaps harbor a peeping tom?
The costumes, designed by Anita Yavich, are something of a mixed bag, though they are more effective than not. Tartuffe’s billowy black garb (with matching fez and chunky cross necklace), Elmire’s alluring red dresses, and Cléante’s sharp blue suit are inventive while suiting each character perfectly. Valère’s peacock-print suit, on the other hand, stretches credulity, and Mariane’s dress is an odd pink thing covered in black mesh; it’s intended to give off youthful and wispy vibes, but it’s more like something that would have been sold at a Hot Topic in the mid-2000s. Another attempt to make the play feel ‘hip’ that doesn’t quite land right is the transformation of Orgon’s son Damis (Matthew Bretschneider) into a selfie-obsessed millennial. Though the choice feels a bit like an attempt to pander to “the kids” younger, but it is a way to incorporate Damis’s need to record everything around him is made relevant to the plot.
One element of Tartuffe that feels less truthful today is the ending. At the last minute, when all seems to be lost for Orgon and his family (spoilers incoming for a 350-year-old play), a servant of the King arrests Tartuffe, insisting that the wise monarch has seen through the buffoon’s fraud. This twist, designed in all likelihood to stroke the ego of Molière’s great patron, King Louis XIV, falls spectacularly flat in America circa 2017. Our current crop of “kings” victimize the lower classes, permit unspeakable violence abroad, and support the election of an accused child predator. The truth is that Tartuffes are now running the country; distressing as that may be, Molière’s genius, and the HTC’s riotously funny production, make this disturbing quandary a bit easier to bear.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.