Moliere, We Hardly Knew Ye

THEATER Tartuffe by Moliere modern adaptation by Robert Auletta directed by Francois Rochaix at the American Repertory Theatre through March 10

Revising an established text is not always a good idea. For instance, no one in their right mind would change "To be or not to be" to "Dude! What the fuck?" in order to modernize Hamlet. But there are plenty of crazies out there (especially in theater). Ambitious writers who love to take on such dangerous tasks as rewriting Shakespeare, Jonson or Middleton are not rare.

Robert Auletta is one such playwright, and his "modern adaptation" of the classic Moliere comedy Tartuffe now playing at the American Repertory Theatre proves that some texts should be left alone.

Moliere's Tartuffe is a clever, funny play about religious hypocrisy in 17th century France. Auletta's version does not change the plot, but blatantly directs the satire at televangelists and the religious right. And it is funny. But not always for the right reasons.

The biggest laughs come from the bizarre anachronistic changes and crass one-liners. "Dorine, shut the fuck up!" is not really funny by itself. Injected into a 322-year-old text, it is hysterical. But it is also cheap. Auletta's changes are so self-conscious that Dorine, while discussing her mistress's illness and the use of leeches to cure it, comments to the audience how odd it is that they are making all these modern references and have no idea what modern medicine is. Why didn't Auletta just change Moliere's references to leeches, too? Because he wanted to wave to the audience, and yell, "Hey, I'm here!"

While Auletta's script is somewhat annoying, with a few exceptions the rest of the production is wonderful. Like virtually every ART show, the set and lighting is mesmerizing.

Towering pea-green plywood walls, with multiple openings and doors, provides a stunning backdrop for the black and white period costumes and striking lighting. Rarely have open doors looked so beautiful.

European opera director Francois Rochaix moves his actors deftly and creatively through the space, creating an artistic statement in each scene. Even between scenes, Rochaix's direction stuns. As a string quartet plays French Renaissance-like shrills, bold, colorful lighting shines on the frenzied cast as it acts out beautifully choreographed silent action.

For the most part the cast is excellent and keeps the play moving quickly, garnering a great deal of laughter. The first 15 minutes of the play, however, are dreadfully slow. Georgine Hall, playing Mme. Pernelle, Orgon's mother, barely manages to keep her lines straight as she scolds Orgon's family. Her comic timing is miserable.

Francine Torres, on the other hand, perfectly plays the maid Dorine as a cross between Roseanne and Carol Burnett. Her lengthy scene with Orgon (the always amazing Thomas Derrah), in which she tries to stop him from forcing his daughter Marianne (Jessalyn Gilsig) to marry Tartuffe (Alvin Epstein), is riotous. She can make vacuuming funny.

Epstein's Tartuffe is equally fantastic. With amazing energy, Epstein plays up Tartuffe's wry sleaziness and brilliant dishonesty. His bursting libido and utterly unbelievable self-flagellation are comedy over three centuries old, but they still seem fresh in Epstein's hands. Watching Epstein, the ART's oldest and best actor, is pure joy.

Nat Dewolf as the bratty Damis, who Orgon disinherits for insultingTartuffe, is another stand-out. Dewolf's ridiculous, over-the-top teenager has a severe attitude problem and too many music videos playing in his head. He is a little too sitcom, but is nonetheless amusing.

Also excellent is the gorgeous and stately Yanna McIntosh as the smooth and studied Flipote, Orgon's wife.

Seeing the ART's Tartuffe is definitely an enjoyable experience. The production is gorgeous and the acting is excellent. You will laugh a great deal, too. However, Rochaix should have used the original text. The words "shit" and "fuck" do not need to be in a play to make it funny. All one needs is good writing; Moliere provides that.