Tartuffe performances stellar; setting amiss
March 10th, 2007
As the old adage goes, some things never change.
Tartuffe, Actors' Guild of Lexington's latest production, satirically highlights something that hasn't changed since the play's debut in the French court nearly three centuries ago -- religious con-artists.
Tartuffe, the play's title character, swindles and cons his way into an affluent household. Dripping with faux-piety and manipulative, self-serving displays of so-called virtue, Tartuffe preys on the wavering faith of others for his own personal gain.
In his program notes, director Rick St. Peter dedicates the production to two genuine men of faith who have positively influenced him ·the Rev. Albert Pennybacker and the Rev. Ronald Luckey.
Conversely, he is quick to warn of spiritual predators. "Tartuffe comes in many disguises," he notes, "from Jim Jones to David Koresh to Jim Baker to Fred Phelps to Ted Haggard and many, many others..."
This production's Tartuffe, deliciously played by Scott Wichmann, seems to integrate the worst qualities of all of them to nastily sleazy effect.
Wichmann's performance packs a powerful hypocrisy-soaked punch, with wildly hilarious over the top entrances and smarmy displays of slimy self-reverence.
In short, because it is so much fun to hate him, you know he's done his job.
The supporting cast is no less stellar. Missy Johnston's Elmire, the subject of Tartuffe's carnal desires, balances a restrained elegance with a penchant for comic timing. The infamous "table scene" between her and Wichmann had the audience in stitches. Laura Blake as the saucy, sharp-tongued maid Dorine has a refreshing air of naturalness in her performance that lights up the stage. And Charles Edward Pogue as the Tartuffe-enamored Orgon is nothing short of brilliant.
Perhaps his intimate relationship with the text helps him on this front, for in addition to acting in the production, Pogue penned the adaptation of this Moliere classic.
Pogue's language sparkles with color and is ripe with crisp cleverness, making versatile leaps from theological discourse to the basest of juicy double entendre. The ensemble cast proves more than up to the task of its delivery, though the average theater patron may struggle to wade through its occasional density.
Despite a fantastic cast and a first-rate adaptation, something feels amiss in this production, but it is difficult to say exactly what. Perhaps it is the staggered momentum -- it does take a few scenes before the production hits its stride and even then, there are pockets of inaction where the production seems to stall.
Exaggerated direction is the name of the game in this satire, and while that works most of the time, sometimes it is just jarring. A replica of the set's beautiful, geometrically skewed stained glass window is colorfully painted on the stage floor, which at times distractedly draws the eye away from the actors.
But perhaps most unsettling is the decision to set the 17th century classic in the literal here and now -- the delightfully affected language is anything but contemporary, and the deus ex machina arrival of an emissary from the king proves less effective, almost irrelevant to our 21st century monarchy-free audience than it did in Moliere's day. It prompts one to ask, "What world IS this anyway?"
These unconventional choices may be artistically sophisticated, but they risk overloading the audience's capacity to suspend disbelief.
Yet overall this ambitious production proves its point -- that purity of belief, whether suspended or not, cannot be measured by garish displays of false faith, but only in the privacy of one's heart.
IF YOU GO
When: 8 p.m. Fri., Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun. through April 1.
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Call: (859) 225-0370.