Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Theater Review: Tartuffe -- Westport

Marc Kudisch (Tartuffe) and Jeanine Serralles (Dorine). Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Deception Takes a Darker Tone in Updated Tartuffe
By Lauren Yarger
Comedy in rhyme is no easy feat, especially if you are trying to stage a 17th-century classic in the 21st century and director David Kennedy's tact at the Westport Country Playhouse, where Moliere's classic Tartuffe is getting a run, is to give us a darker, more sinister  protagonist -- and modern clothes.

In some ways, it works. The language (translated into English by Richard Wilbur) still rhymes, but isn't bogged down by more reminders of its antiquity by period fashions (the costumes are designed by Ilona Somogyi). Even the set  (Wilson Chin, design) is sparse (minus a gigantic cross and an anachronistic appearance by the Sun King, Louis XIV) so attention remains with the story.

A transient named Tartuffe (Marc Kudish) has ingratiated himself into the Paris home of Orgon (Mark Nelson). He has charmed Orgon and his mother, Madame Parnelle (Patricia Connolly) with his supposed devotion to God, but other members of the household aren't fooled. When Organo's son, Damis (Justin Adams), reveals that the house guest has made unwelcome and ungentlemanly advances toward Organo's wife, Elmire (Nadia Bowers), Orgon refuses to believe it and disinherits Damis. So taken in by Tartuffe is Orgon, that he also orders his daughter, Mariane (Charies Castro Smith) to break her engagement to her true love, Valere (Matthew Amenot), and make the pious houseguest his son-in-law instead. He also signs a deed giving all of his estate to Tartuffe, who quickly acts to have Orgon and his family evicted.

It's one of those stories that might have seemed really funny in 1664, but loses something over the centuries. Fortunately, this version has a shining flash -- and no, it's not that odd appearance by Louis XIV (lighting design by Matthew Richards). It's Jeanine Serralles in the role of Dorine, the free-speaking maid, who comes to Mariane's aid in trying to get the girl's father to relent in his plans to marry her off to Tartuffe. Serralles takes command of the rhyming verse and somehow makes it contemporary and very funny. Her every gesture is in perfect harmony with the words and her performance really is a triumph -- a blend of old and new, of wit and lyric. She eats the scenery whenever she is on stage and in truth, interest wanes whenever she is absent from a scene. With the notable exception of Tyrone Mitchell Henderson who plays Cleante, Elmire's brother, the cast delivers the metered verse ably, but none of them get it to sing like Serralles. (Rounding out the ensemble are Chrissy Albanese, Jeremy Lawrence and William Peden).
Kudish focuses on the sinister side of Tartuffe -- the lust-filled, manipulative impostor who takes advantage of his prey's weakness and seeks to take whatever he can before the kill. It's a different take than we usually see in the staging of this Moliere work and Tartuffe lacks charm -- as well as humor. He leaves us confused about why Orgon and his mother were ever so taken with him in the first place.
The play runs about two and a half hours with one intermission. Performances are Tuesday at 8 pm, Wednesday at 2 and 8 pm, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm.  An open-captioned performance for the hearing impaired is planned for Sunday, July 29 at 3 pm. For more information or tickets, call 203-227-4177, toll-free 1-888-927-7529, visit the box office at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, off Route 1, Westport; or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tartuffe has been extended with an extra performance added on Sunday, August 5, at 3 pm.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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