Review: Tartuffe

RECOMMENDED

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through July 21
Tickets: $45-$65
Phone: 773-753-4472

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

At its best, Court Theatre’s “Tartuffe,” part of a two-play Molière festival that started with “The Misanthrope,” effectively pairs the wit of Richard Wilbur’s translation with canny physical comedy to illuminate the double-pronged satire of a religious hypocrite and his dupes coupled with lectures on the virtues of moderation. 

That best is epitomized by the scenes in which the maid, Dorine — portrayed by the petite Elizabeth Ledo with an abundance of spunk, plenty of backbone and a Spanish accent — stands up to her master, Orgon, played by A. C. Smith, whose football-player physique and deep, resonant voice give him the gravitas and authority the character would like to have in his own household. The juxtaposition of their size, their body language and the irrepressible Dorine’s refusal to keep quiet despite threats to her person and her position as servant are hilarious. 

Director Charles Newell and his ensemble tease out quite a few clever bits from a script that tends to get didactic. The push-pull between the shy lovers, Mariane (Grace Gealey) and Valère (Travis Turner), dressed as overgrown children, is rather charming, especially with Dorine interceding to bring them together. The way Tartuffe’s fawning valet, Laurent (Erik Hellman), hands him his hair shirt and cat o’ nine tails is priceless. And the funny-sad image of Orgon, sitting cross-legged under a table so stunned by Tartuffe’s perfidy he’s incapable of rescuing his wife, Elmire (Patrese D. McClain), from seduction, will linger for a long time.

Unfortunately, these are isolated instances in a surprisingly uneven production. The problems start with an incongruous variety of acting styles. For example, Michael Poque, whose Cléante is the principal voice of reason, goes for a contemporary, colloquial approach, while some others stress the beats of the verse more. Dominique Worsley, replacing Kamal Angelo Bolden as Orgon’s son, Damis, strikes a single note — anger — and bears a distracting resemblance to Vin Diesel. As Orgon’s stern mother, Madame Pernelle, who also is taken in by Tartuffe, Allen Gilmore doesn’t go for drag gestures, but he’s clearly a man playing a woman for no apparent reason. And McClain’s Elmire is so sexy and alluring she seems to be trying too hard to seduce Tartuffe rather than visa versa.

Philip Earl Johnson’s Tartuffe adds to the difficulties. We’re treated to extended descriptions of him, both pro and con, before he appears, but when he finally does, this aging hipster doesn’t make much of an impression. We don’t see any of the qualities that could have enraptured Orgon and his mother, such as charisma or intense piety, nor is he an obvious enough charlatan to incite the others. Although the way he embraces Orgon, putting his gray ponytailed head on the larger man’s shoulder, is amusing, Johnson nails the character only in the late scenes, when Tartuffe gets the upper hand and revels in his cold, calculating nastiness.  

Before “Tartuffe” opened, much was made of the Hyde Park/Kenwood setting, but except perhaps for the big oak doors of John Culbert’s scenic design, both the time and place seem deliberately vague. As for Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes, I think they’re supposed to reveal something about each character, but I just don’t get most of them or, I suspect, the pop culture references. Elmire, for instance, wears a glittering haute couture evening gown throughout, which seems to suggest an extreme extravagance that has nothing to do with her behavior – and is hardly Hyde Park or Kenwood. The ribbons on Mariane’s shoes cutely reflect the period in which the play was written, but what’s with the pink tutu? Someone told me that Valere’s get up — madras shorts, funky jacket, baseball cap — refers to a character on “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” but I’ve never seen the TV show, so it simply seemed at odds with everything he said and did. And are Damis’ black kilt and tattoos a fashion trend I don’t know about?

I give Court Theatre credit for taking a daring tack with “Tartuffe,” but with the mostly African American casting and other innovations, I wish the show had done more to make me see the play and its themes in a meaningful new light.