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A LONG TIME AGO, when Moliere first tried to produce Tartuffe, censors threatened to squeeze all the genius out of the play before he could bring it to the stage. Moliere, bristling with artistic integrity, refused to change a single alexandrine. The play remained locked away. After five years, the playwright had added a few more lines flattering King Louis XIV, although he resisted substantial changes in the nature of the farce. He refused many more times to soften the sting of his wit, which he directed at the church, the aristocracy, the literary establishment--or anyone within reach.
Moliere wasn't throwing an artistic temper tantrum; as Vreeland would say, literary elegance backed up his refusal. Most producers have preserved the play with an almost awesome regard to the culture and values of the 17th century. Richard Wilbur broke with tradition by translating Tartuffe into English, but many producers still cling to the idea that the rhyming script demands delivery in a dusty package. The Boston Shakespeare Company's production has, in some ways, smothered Tartuffe with theatrical kitsch, motivated, it seems, by concern with maintaining the ill-conceived authenticity.
The show is funny, nonetheless. Director Grey Cattell Johnson has captured every drop of Moliere's satirical venom, and the spring of his theatrical tension is wound tightly. As the play opens, Marianne prepares to marry her beloved Valere. Plans are thrown out of kilter by Tartuffe, a hypocrite whom Marianne's father, Orgon, has decided that Marianne should wed Tartuffe instead of Valere. By this time, everyone else in the household has become sick from Tartuffe's hypocritical moralizing and pretended disapproval of even the innocent pleasures of dancing and receiving company. They plan to unmask Tartuffe's real nature to Orgon and arrange for him to view secretly Tartuffe's brazen advances on Elmire, Orgon's wife. Orgon, at last convinced, drives Tartuffe from the house (but not without several last-minute complications.)
ACTING. DIRECTING, and everything ineffable slides into place in this production; it is the visual and tangible that is out of place. The costumes immediately jar the senses: lots of lavendar, orange, turquoise and pink; big ribbons on sleeves, cuffs and collars; droopy ruffles, fringe, textured velvet and clunky platform shoes on all the men. Of course, 300 years ago, people dressed with excessive ornamentation by today's standard, but the costumes, far from evoking the period, resemble ancient clown suits. They result from a mistaken conception of Moliere's time. Perhaps designer Dru Minton Clark simply concurs with what many believe it was like. But if he intended to exaggerate and underline the farce, he leaves, instead, the impression of grave misinterpretation, grave misinterpretation.
The set suffers from similar problems. Designer William Groener uses few props, and almost none authentic to the 1600s. Although he creates interesting contrasts in the position of players by using several sets of stairs and split levels, he overuses pastels. The set, too, resembles a kitschy misconception of the period, perhaps intended to caricature. A little royal blue and some Fleur-de-lis, as well as some real lace, would go a long way here.
The set and costumes, despite their drawbacks, are subordinate to other aspects of the play. Poor acting and directing might hamper success far more. Richard McElvain as Tartuffe and Janet Rodgers as Elmire stand out, but the entire cast of Tartuffe is strong. McElvain marches solemnly up and down stairs, hands clasped or crossed across his breast, head bent in humility, eyes wily and darting everywhere. He smacks his lips greedily when fingering Elmire or household cash.
Rodgers displays the modesty and lightheadedness appropriate to a French wife, but reveals her character's cleverness at using feminine charm to unmask Tartuffe. In the funnlest scene, Elmire summons Tartuffe, instructing her husband to hide under the table so he may witness the ingrate's treachery for himself. The scene exhibits Moliere's expertise with farce and dramatic suspense.
Elmire reminds the skeptical Orgon to reveal himself before things go too far. McElvain descends the stairs with utmostholy piety; Rodgers leads him on with an ironic smile. Sneering at Orgon's simplicity, McElvain rips off his hairshirt (revealing clean linen underneath) and prepares to go at it. Director Grey Johnson draws out the scene for all it's worth, keeping Orgon (Bill McCann) under the table until Tartuffe has practically consummated the affair. Rodgers, displaying genuine alarm, keeps kicking McCann under the table, unable to believe he could hesitate so long before putting a stop to things. Johnson controls the scene, stringing the audience along almost until someone will jump up onstage and drag Orgon from under the table, shouting, "can't you see?" Johnson ends the scene before it reaches tedium or repetitiveness, letting the audience off the hook. Rodger's sarcastic "Are you sure you're satisfied? Maybe you should have waited a little longer!" returns the action to its previous level of comedy.
CENSORS OBJECTED to Moliere's attack on religion when Moliere came out with Tartuffe. But Moliere claimed Tartuffe defended the church by pointing out the difference between the truly pious and pretenders. It is difficult for modern audience to feel at home with such a theme; hypocrisy is understandable, but religion no longer has much place in modern consciousness. All the same, Tartuffe was worth Moliere's struggle three centuries ago, and his villainy will probably wreak havoc for' a few more.
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