I can only imagine how much fun it must have been to be part of the Stagecrafters’ cast of TARTUFFE rehearsing this show. My greatest wish for the actors in this hysterical production is that they continue to have as much fun onstage as I did watching them. Even if they have half as much fun, they’re still going to be the happiest people around. For setting aside the historical background and social import of Moliere’s classic for a moment—I’ll get to it, because I’m the reviewer, and I have to—the main point to take away is that director Rhonda Goldstein has mounted a production that is funny. Screamingly funny.
For the record, this is my third time seeing TARTUFFE, and my second time reviewing it for Stage, and it’s one of my favorite plays ever. When Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere took on the rich topic of religious hypocrisy in 17th century France, he blasted his targets with all the comic theatrics in his arsenal—rhymes that drive the witty dialogue at warp speed (the Stagecrafters wisely use Richard Wilbur’s peerless translation), familiar characters from the world of commedia dell’arte, and plenty of opportunities for outlandish physical comedy, all in the service of a genuine and fierce hatred of pious frauds. That’s why whenever Tartuffe fleeces the gullible Orgon and creates unholy havoc with Orgon’s family, no matter where and how you see it, the play is going to work—it’s about as close to knucklehead-proof as a play can get.
Happily, the Stagecrafters have not employed knuckleheads in their production. While there were a few moments of slightly faulty opening night timing, it was clear that this cast was having a field day romping across Richard Stewart’s simple but elegant set in the costume team’s (Jen Adams, Janet Gilmore, Lisa Miller, and Susan Mooers) lovely period costumes. And what a group of merry-makers this cast is. I’m still laughing as I picture Richard Geller’s Orgon, channeling Shemp Howard (google him if you need to) as he bounces around, feinting left and right against adversaries real and imagined. Geller is matched by Christian Lepore’s Tartuffe, by turns pompous, lecherous, smarmy and back to pompous, with a little of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion thrown in as he sheds some particularly funny crocodile tears. Nor do the members of Orgon’s household and family circle fail to provoke laughter. Kathleen Mulhearn hits all the right notes as the clever servant, Dorine, while Jane Schumacher (Orgon’s daughter Mariane) and Jim Broyles (Mariane’s fiancé Valere) put on the funniest lovers’ quarrel I ever hope to see. Kyle Paul Dandridge is a hoot as Orgon’s hot-headed son Damis, and Pierlisa Chiodo-Steo is more than game as Orgon’s wife Elmire, whose near compromise at the hands of Tartuffe is a comic highlight (credit again to director Goldstein for pulling off a stage picture to climax this scene that you won’t soon forget). Even Brian Weiser, in the usually thankless role of the raisonneur Cleante (that is, the guy whose job it is to dispense common sense—who needs that in a comedy?), manages to be pretty funny, which is no small feat.
If you need further recommendation to see the Stagecrafters’ 513th production, go back and read the first paragraph, particularly the part where I say it’s funny. TARTUFFE has been a comic gift to audiences for over 340 years, and this production re-gifts Moliere in high style.
Directed by Rhonda Goldstein
June 15-July 1
8130 Germantown Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19118