Classical Theatre’s ‘Tartuffe’: A Review

10 Apr

By JOHN DeMERS 

We are facing a serious shortage of rhymed couplets these days. Happily, the French playwright Moliere, with a gutsy assist from Houston’s own Classical Theatre Company, is here to help us out with that. 

The troupe that bills itself as CTC (having learned from River Oaks Chamber Orchestra and others the value of “Have Acronym, Will Travel”) says its mission is to give a fresh look at plays a century old or more. Moliere’s Tartuffe (first performed in 1664) is considerably older than that, but it plays almost as though it were penned yesterday. Almost – and that’s where those pesky couplets come in. 

With the exception of the Hispanic rap that carries much of the narrative for In the Heights, currently at the Hobby Center, we can’t think of another show that does quite this much in paired lines. And just when you think you’ve got the rhythm down, when you’re practically tapping your feet to the words, Moliere throws in a back-and-forth piece of hilarious dialogue in which two people rhyme each other. At its best, the effect is delicious. And the rhymes themselves, based on translations from the French by Maya Slater and the great Richard Wilbur as adapted by CTC’s executive artistic director John Johnston, are light years ahead of the simplistic street prattle in Heights

Johnston’s contributions to Tartuffe tend to be obvious: a one-line reference to “Stanford Financial,” for instance, or the redneck Texas deputy who turns up near the end to serve eviction papers. Mostly, though, everyone involved in the production keeps a tight focus on current events – or, at least, keeps making a plus-ca-change statement about human greed and gullibility. While Allen Stanford, Bernie Madoff and others are suggested by Tartuffe’s shenanigans to get other people’s money, the real target here is religious hypocrisy. When Tartuffe, a preacher (even if presumably Catholic) feigns to break down and beg forgiveness, he addresses the audience straight-on with tears flowing from the anguished eyes at the center of his oh-so-contorted face. It’s Jimmy Swaggart all over again (remember him?), delivering his famous confession not in the traditional Catholic confessional but on TV (remember that?). 

Johnston, who clearly knows and loves this material, directs with a steady hand, drawing major energy levels and countless laughs from his first-rate cast. Thomas Prior and Gregory Wise shine as the play’s matched pair, slimy preacher Tartuffe and Orgon, the wealthy fool he takes advantage of while trying to bed the man’s wife. Pamela Vogel is wonderful as that wife, Elmire, and she’s given some terrific, weary wisdom about a woman making her way through a world of lusting men. 

If anything, the younger generation gets even wilder theatrics: Blair Knowles as Orgon’s often-hysterical daughter Marianne plus Philip Hayes as Valere, the guy she wants to marry, with Caleb George drawing on a just-buried punk weirdness worthy of Rocky Horror to depict the rich man’s confused son, Damis. And, once you see CTC’s Tartuffe, you’ll understand that the whole thing wouldn’t work without what may be the origin of the wiseass maid in so many decades of TV sitcoms. Holly Haire is a delight as Dorine the know-it-all domestic. And yes, she speaks in rhymed couplets too.

Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex, 2201 Preston, through April 18. www.classicaltheatre.org 

Photos by Kyle Ezer Photography: (top) Thomas Prior (Tartuffe) and Gregory Wise (Orgon);  (botton) Philip Hays (Valere) and Holly Haire (Dorine)

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