nytheatre.com review by Leslie Bramm
January 15, 2011
Moliere wrote Tartuffe in 1664. Though popular with audiences, the play landed him in hot water with the Archbishop of Paris, who threatened to excommunicate anyone who was in the play, saw the play, or got caught reading the play. Even with support from King Louis XIV, Moliere had to alter his text to make it less offensive and more secular, thus compromising his original statement about false prophets and the hypocrisy of religious fervor. Moliere was quoted as saying, “The comic is the outward and visible form that nature's bounty has attached to everything unreasonable.”
Paul Weidner’s new translation of Tartuffe takes on the political dynamic with a slicing smartness. Tartuffe’s blinding dogma and his ultimate seduction of the lord of the house rings true when you think about the power that the religious right has over our government. And how, as a culture, we judge certain groups by the obviously false and unscrupulous intentions of a few, or in this case a single person. Weidner skillfully adapts this new translation to address these issues.
Tartuffe is an imposter. A con man who uses his piety and the naiveté of his patriarch Orgon to weasel his way into the good graces of a wealthy family. Tartuffe uses self-flagellation and dogma to almost marry Orgon’s daughter Marianne, at least 30 years his junior, and to have Orgon sign over the deed to the house and all his property. Eventually Tartuffe is exposed and his plans thwarted.
Weidner makes a bold choice with the text and writes it in part verse and rhyming couplets. This adds a bit of the French flavor and gives the dialogue a musical rhythm. This exercise must have been difficult and pressure-filled. Weidner has a passion for this material and his care and craftsmanship come through.
Charles E. Gerber both plays the title role and directs the piece. This can often be a recipe for chaos and actors stacked on top of one another. Gerber obviously has the chops to pull off both in this case. He knows the material and knows exactly what he wants the stage pictures to look like and gets the job done.
Kudos to the set and costume designers. David M. Mead’s set is simple and elegant, on a budget. Sharon Thompson’s costume plot is a perfect blend of modern and period looks. The lighting design serves the play well, however there was a lighting gel upstage that whenever an actor walked under it made their hair or the tops of their heads glow purple. I found that a bit distracting. The portrait of Carol Bennett Gerber, as Orgon’s first wife was a nice detail.
The ensemble is up to the text and you can see they are beginning to click. I hesitate to single out individual performances, because what makes this play work is the groove the ensemble can get going. I can say there isn’t a weak link, and all the dramatis personae have moments of hilarity. The actors seemed to stumble with the text on occasion, but I suspect a few more performances will remedy this and tighten things up over all.
The question I always ask when seeing a new translation of a play that’s hundreds of years old is, “why”? Why do we need this and why right now? Paul Weidner’s translation, with its political edge, its humor, and its moral lessons, is necessary and timely. If you’re a fan of Tartuffe you will not be disappointed. If you’ve never seen the play, WorkShop Theatre’s production is a nice entrée to this classic work.