KPBS AIRDATE: May 24, 2002
French farce meets English extravaganza on the way to American excess. In other words, the La Jolla Playhouse production of “Tartuffe” looks more like an overblown 1980’s British musical than a 1660’s Molière social satire.
In the first act, Robert Brill’s spare, suggestive set remains attractively stationary, highlighted by Jess Goldstein’s colorful costumes and Chris Parry’s evocative lighting. But then all hell breaks loose in Act 2. The set starts spinning, lights flash, confetti flies and the main character makes his final entrance in a Napoleonic pose, dropped from the sky in a hot air balloon that must be the 17th century equivalent of a mid-show helicopter or falling chandelier. We won’t even talk about the head-rolling guillotine effect that is 100 years out of joint. Or the inexplicable banging and crashing of the sound design, and the fact that, clever though it may be, the piece ends with an exceedingly anachronistic wink-nudge in-joke of The Who’s “We Won’t Be Fooled Again.”
Under Des McAnuff’s direction, schmaltz and shtick substitute for sly social humor. What ever happened to subtlety and wit? Not much of it here. The broad brush blots out any fine detail. The cast is generally solid, and they handle Richard Wilbur’s deft poetic translation with aplomb. But the hypocrite Tartuffe is played in such gross exaggerated style that he’s more a cartoon than a multi-faceted man. What wealthy landowner would ever be fooled by such a blatantly lascivious sleazeball? Wouldn’t the play be so much more resonant if the falsely pious cleric looked more like Ralph Reed — or your neighborhood priest — than a slobbering, gluttonous clown?
It’s a tragedy to take a stellar actor like Jefferson Mays, who showed us last year — at the La Jolla Playhouse — that he was a genius of nuance and the small, significant gesture — and turn him into a slithering, slavering buffoon. His smallest actions are his best. There are other fine performances, but overall, the men fare better than the women, who have less comic and vocal variety, though everyone seems to be yelling more than necessary. John Getz is especially compelling as the credulous Orgon — who must really be an idiot to be duped by this Tartuffe.
It must be said that the opening night audience was thrilled, and leapt to its feet at the end. Maybe they haven’t experienced the fine points of Molière. Maybe they adore the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Maybe they, like the modern French, lean toward the Jerry Lewis school of comedy. Maybe I’m the odd one out. But midway through the second act, I just wanted to shout out, ‘McEnuff!’
©2002 Patté Productions Inc