Very Funny and Very Strange TARTUFFE at Temple Repertory Theater

by Michael Schwartz

Emmanuelle Delpech, the director of Temple Repertory Theater’s production of Moliere’s TARTUFFE, makes some very interesting choices. Some of them worked for me, and others did not—plus there were a few during which, if I were the sort of person who texted during plays, I would probably have texted my friends with several iterations of “WTF?” I’ll get to those moments as coherently as I can shortly. What I want to concentrate on for the moment is a terrific choice Delpech made to open the show. The terrific choice’s name is Michael Grant, and he plays Laurent, Tartuffe’s assistant—not one of world drama’s meatiest roles (he’s generally dispensed with as an offstage figure). Delpech gave Grant the job of greeting the audience, but “greeting” doesn’t quite cover it—he messes with them, cracks jokes (all in character), and enlists an audience member to help him inflate a dummy who will stand (or hang) in a very prominent position throughout the show. What Grant does is absolutely crucial to this particular production: he introduces an air of gleeful impudence that overpowers nearly all the reservations I could come up with—and as I look back over my notes, I see that I came up with plenty. But no matter: when you’re laughing, you forgive a lot.

Stefanee Martin, Genevieve Perrier, and Robert Carlton in a scene from Temple Repertory Theater's TARTUFFE, running in Philadelphia through July 29. (Photo Credit: E. Delpech)

TARTUFFE, of course, was and remains Moliere’s masterpiece of skewering religious hypocrisy, and the Temple production is at its best when Moliere’s machinations are allowed to dominate. Delpech and company take the story of the gullible Orgon (a pugnacious David Ingram) and his systematic undoing by the ultimate phony holy man Tartuffe (an amusingly slimy Rob Kahn), and update it to present-day Main Line Philly. Many of the actors appear in whiteface and all of them are put through their paces in a variety of stylized movements (in equally stylized costumes designed by Jamie Grace-Duff) that call attention to Moliere’s drawing his characters from commedia dell’arte. So far, so good, but the physical business interferes with the pace, which often seems to be set by the slowly rotating ceiling fan prominently lit above center stage. The emphasis on physicality causes Delpech to make her gravest staging error: in one of the most hilarious (and horrifying) scenes ever written, Tartuffe nearly rapes Orgon’s wife Elmire with Orgon hiding under the table Tartuffe is using for the purpose. In this production, we see Orgon under the table in clear view, thus rendering the scene nonsensical. Then there’s Rebecca Rich as Cleante, the sensible brother-in-law, outfitted with a paint-on mustache that emphasizes the artificially masculine role she’s portraying because…well, I’m just not sure. Further, there’s the problem of finding modern equivalents for Moliere’s 17th century France. The King’s Officer, for example, who serves as Moliere’s deus ex machina in restoring Orgon’s home and dispensing justice, is transformed into an Afghan war vet wearing an Obama T-shirt because…well, I’m just not sure. Obama is our King? Obama thinks he’s a king? We think Obama is a king? (I haven’t even mentioned the Bailiff as a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee-drinking Philly cop.) As I said, there’s a fair amount of “WTF” on display.

Nevertheless, TARTUFFE holds up remarkably well, and while the performances and staging seem at times to be at odds with Moliere’s story, there is good work from Stefannee Martin as Orgon’s eager-to-please daughter and Robert Carlton III as her intended, and even better work from Kate Czajkowski as Elmire (amusingly re-imagined as a dresses-too-young stepmom) and Genevieve Perrier, giving some new life to the familiar “oh-no-she-didn’t” Latina maid (again, not what Moliere had in mind, but still funny). Between the new elements that are strange but funny, and Moliere’s story, which is consistently sharp as well as funny, there’s more than enough reason to visit Temple Repertory Theater to become, for an evening, “Tartuffified.”

by Moliere
Directed by Emmanuelle Delpech
June 25-July 29, 2011
Temple Repertory Theater
Randall Theater
2020 N. 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122

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