“Tartuffe” both amuses and disappoints

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"Tartuffe" by Molière at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Pictured Aaron McDaniel as Damis and Brent Harris as Tartuffe. Photo by Jerry Dalia.
Tartuffe is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Molière (born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; 1622-1673) is considered one of the greatest French playwrights and a master of comedy on the world stage. Among his works are The Misanthrope, The Miser, The School for Wives, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and The Imaginary Invalid. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has mounted Richard Wilbur’s verse translation of Molière’s best-known comedy, Tartuffe, at the Kirby Theatre in Madison.

"Tartuffe" at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Pictured Sarah Nicole Deaver as Mariane, Victoria Mack as Dorine, and Mark Hawkins as Valère.
“Tartuffe” at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Pictured Sarah Nicole Deaver as Mariane, Victoria Mack as Dorine, and Mark Hawkins as Valère.

Orgon (Patrick Toon), a wealthy man, and his mother Pernelle (Vivian Reed) have fallen under the spell of the religious hypocrite Tartuffe (Brent Harris). Everyone else in the household — wife Elmire (Caroline Kinsolving), children Mariane (Sarah Nicole Deaver) and Damis (Aaron McDaniel), brother-in-law Cléante (William Sturdivant), Mariane’s fiancé Valère (Mark Hawkins), and maid Dorine (Victoria Mack) — see through Tartuffe. Orgon is so taken in that he decides to marry Mariane to Tartuffe against the girl’s wishes. He also makes a gift of all his worldly possessions to the hypocritical con man. A last-ditch effort on Elmire’s part to reveal Tartuffe’s true nature leads to a potentially ruinous situation for Orgon and his family.

Tartuffe requires a little getting used to

Richard Wilbur’s 1963 translation, considered by many as the standard English translation of the play, is tackled by director Bonnie J. Monte and her cast. Unfortunately, for the audience the play required a little getting used to. Some of the actors took a while to ease into a comfortable style of speaking in verse, along with using some robotic arm and hand gestures early in the play. While these problems were for the most part overcome as the show progressed, one would have expected them to have been resolved during the rehearsal and preview periods.

Brent Harris as Tartuffe at The Shakespeare Theate of NJ. Photos by Jerry Dalia.
Brent Harris as Tartuffe at The Shakespeare Theate of NJ. Photos by Jerry Dalia.

Tartuffe also contains some theatrical conventions of which modern audiences may not be aware. The play makes use of the deus ex machina plot device, common in Molière’s time yet rare in more modern works. Some of Molière’s characters are taken from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition: the foolish and stubborn master, the sassy, common-sensical servant, the trickster, the hapless lovers. Relationships between characters are not rooted in an underlying feeling of familial affection but instead are used to emphasize each character’s individual traits and thus their allotted roles in both the play and by extension society. The comedy is performed in a broad style, with both physical humor and wordplay aiming less for the mind and more for the belly laugh.

Of the cast members, the best performance is Brent Harris’ Tartuffe. He is all oily charm, a master of hypocrisy in its highest form. He is also a master of comedy, especially when trying to seduce the lady of the house or feigning penitence when being accused by Orgon’s son. Yet while you may think he should be easily disposable, when his true nature is revealed the depth of his evil cunning is truly shocking. Other fine work is done by Caroline Kinsolving as a woman who is willing to do anything to rescue her husband from his follies, and William Sturdivant as a righteous man giving wise counsel without giving in to passion or emotion. A special shout-out goes to Vivian Reed, bringing her own brand of sassiness to the brief role of Madame Pernelle.

The scenic and costume designs in Tartuffe are superb
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents "Tartuffe." Pictured Victoria Mack as Dorine and Sarah Nicole Deaver as Mariane.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents “Tartuffe.” Pictured Victoria Mack as Dorine and Sarah Nicole Deaver as Mariane.

As for the Shakespeare Theatre’s design staff, Nikki Delhomme’s costumes are superb. Brittany Vasta’s scenic design, while functional, creates a stark open space austere to the point of sparseness in what is supposed to be an opulent home.

There are laughs to be had in this production of Tartuffe to be sure. Astute audience members will draw their own parallels between today’s political scene and the sight of a con man operating under the guise of false piety duping the unwary. While one can take pleasure seeing this comedy, it could have been much more than is presented here. I cannot, therefore, wholeheartedly recommend seeing this production of Tartuffe.

Tartuffe is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through June 10, 2018. For tickets and information, visit shakespearenj.org.