Theater review: Tartuffe seduces and amuses
Through June 10
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
36 Madison Ave., Madison
By GWEN OREL
Should Tartuffe be sexy?
Yes, apparently. It is a brilliant choice of Bonnie J. Monte, director of Molière’s play at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and also STNJ’s artistic director, to cast Brent Harris, with his piercing blue eyes and plummy voice, as the title role.
The eponymous hypocrite needs to be plausible as someone charismatic enough to con wealthy Orgon (Patrick Toon) into trusting him more than his own family (and at one point in the play’s second act, almost more than his own eyes), but he’s often more overtly loathsome.
Before we actually meet Tartuffe, we’ve heard all about him for a good 40 minutes. Everyone in the Orgon family is onto him, except for his overly pious mother Madame Pernelle, a comedic, righteous church lady in Vivian Reed.
When Harris finally enters, tall and cool in a long coat, he’s seductive and dangerous — as a cult leader should be.
Seductive enough that we nearly believe him? Well, not quite.
Molière doesn’t want us to go there, really, and we don’t.
But, he does want us to pause from our laughter to take it all in. Monte’s production, fine though it is, doesn’t quite go there, either.
Richard Wilbur’s rhyming 1963/1969 translation sounds effortless here, and the choice to keep to an antique style a good one. Nikki Delhomme’s pretty costumes are more 18th-Century than 17th for the 1664 comedy, but work very well. And Brittany Vasta’s elegant set, with Matthew J. Weisgable’s nuanced lights showing us the sky through the window, present a refined world.
Stand-out performances are sharp-tongued lady’s maid Dorine, from Victoria Mack, who wants all to be well, and Aaron McDaniel as Orgon’s hot-headed son Damis.
Fun as it all is, though, the play begins to sink in the second half. That’s due to some of the same choices that make the laughs so broad in Act One. Molière famously expanded on the set-ups of Commedia dell’arte, with every character playing a “type.” But his poetry and inventiveness set his work apart. In short, the mugging and extreme choices that tell us who the characters are — for example, daughter Mariane (Sarah Nicole Deaver), in her pink dress, twirls for no reason before she sits down — are wearying by Act Two.
Despite a rather ludicrous Deus ex Machina report from the king that restores the usual order of things, by Act Two we want to go a little deeper. After all, if “Tartuffe” were going to be a silly bauble about a duped gentleman, Molière has ample opportunity to end the play sooner. It nearly all goes horribly wrong — and the style of acting and directing should reflect that shift.
This keeps the solid and often hilarious production from plumbing Molière’s depths.
But the shallows are awfully pleasant. Worth the wade.