KPBS AIRDATE: May 12, 1993
It’s as old as the hills and as fresh as tomorrow morning’s coffee. First produced 330 years ago, Molière’s “Tartuffe” definitely stands the test of time. And in the wake of Waco, it’s more pertinent than ever. It’s the story of a religious zealot who is a fraud, a hypocrite and impostor who uses religious cant to play on the neediness and naiveté of others.
Never much given to self-satire, religious fanatics denounced the play as a vicious attack on religion. It was banned by the Paris Parliament, but returned triumphantly five years later to assume its place as one of Molière’s wittiest and most beloved comedies. It can’t be very controversial any more; the Lamb’s Players, a decidedly Christian theater company, takes obvious delight in presenting it.
But the director and tech team have given it the look of a garish garden party, rather than the propriety of an upper middle-class Paris abode. Oddly, there are clouds under-foot and a tent-like canopy overhead, held up by slanting poles for the beribboned actors to swing around incessantly, and punctuated by a hot-pink cutout of a chandelier. Go figure. Molière’s humor is in the actions and the words, but I guess the Lamb’s wanted to make sure everyone knew to take it all lightly.
What shines most in this production, besides the deliciously jeweled beauty marks that grace the women in various strategic locations, is the new translation by Ranjit Bolt. It’s both colloquial and accessible, and captures the spirit, if not the total essence of the original French, and it makes Molière an easy ride for any aged audience member.
This American premiere translation is in verse, cleverly rhymed but not in couplets, and it doesn’t come trippingly off the tongue of every cast member.
Most facile with the language is Michael Harvey, who does a dynamic turn as the credulous Orgon, so readily and unshakably duped by the duplicitous Tartuffe. As the title character, David Cochran Heath is not quite self-righteous or smarmy enough, and he repeatedly turned his back on the North side of the audience.
Gail West is a pretty and intelligent Elmire, the wife of Orgon who finally ensnares and exposes Tartuffe. And Kerry Meads has a helluva good time as the high-spirited, hyperverbal housekeeper Dorine.
With the production’s brash hue and tone, director Robert Smyth was obviously going for the good time. And it is a good time. But Smyth didn’t let the candy-store colors overpower the message that not all piety bespeaks hypocrisy.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.