Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 43
 
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
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Music/Theater

(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
THE ANTAGONISTS: From the comfort of his luxurious canopied bed, the scheming Tartuffe (Zach Grenier) debates with Cleante (Christopher Donahue), a voice of reason represented here on a large video screen, in Daniel Fish’s production of Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through October 28.

Whose “Tartuffe” Is It Anyway? Moliere’s or Daniel Fish’s? Contemporary High-tech Spin Casts Dark Aura on 17th C. Comedy

Donald Gilpin

In the introduction to his 1963 verse translation of Moliere’s Tartuffe, Richard Wilbur urges actors and directors to “trust the words to convey the point and persons of the comedy, and trust them also to be sufficiently entertaining.” Moliere’s play, he goes on to argue, “resists the overextension of any thesis. The actor or director who insists on a stimulatingly freakish interpretation will find himself engaged in deliberate misreading and willful distortion, and the audience will not be deceived.”

Daniel Fish, director of the current production of Tartuffe at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, has embraced Mr. Wilbur’s engaging rhymed couplet translation, but has ignored Mr. Wilbur’s warning and shown little reverence for traditional staging of this most popular Moliere comedy. The eccentricities of this production will be less surprising to those who saw Mr. Fish’s controversial Hamlet at McCarter’s Berlind two seasons ago.

John Conklin’s unusual set foreshadows what is to come. A vast, empty gray room with large video screens in the back and stage right walls covers most of the stage. The elaborate tapestried 17th century boudoir of Monsieur Orgon is tightly confined to only the left one-third of the stage. Audience members, depending on where they are sitting, will miss some of what happens on stage left and will see some of the boudoir action only on the screen. As the video designer/camerawoman (Alexandra Eaton) moves around the stage in jeans, t-shirt and red sneakers, her video images appear on the screens, focusing audience attention on particular characters, gestures, expressions.

The overall effect is sometimes enlightening, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Mr. Fish and his multi-media Tartuffe do indeed provide new perspectives on this 343year-old classic. But sometimes the effects are frustrating, as the characters and their actions are restricted or not visible. Sometimes we want to see and hear the live actors directly, not at the whim of the all-powerful camera.

Mr. Fish’s Tartuffe is by no means atonal or uninteresting, but the pervasiveness of the video images, the starkness of the main part of the divided set, and Zach Grenier’s chillingly sinister portrayal of the main character make this a dark and frightening world. Despite the lively rhyming couplets and a high-spirited, comically gifted cast, this Tartuffe looks more like the menacing world of a Harold Pinter drama than the broadly comical terrain of a commedia dell’arte-inspired Moliere comedy.

The play presents a single day in the life of Monsieur Orgon (Michael Rudko), his family, and their pious visitor Tartuffe. The title character’s influence on the family is powerfully evident long before his first appearance on stage. Tartuffe’s sanctimonious behavior has completely enthralled Orgon and his mother (Beth Dixon), but the other, less gullible members of the family — Orgon’s wife Elmire (Christina Rouner), their son Damis (Nick Westrate), and daughter Mariane (Michelle Beck), Elmire’s brother Cleante (Christopher Donahue) and their feisty, outspoken maid Dorine (Sally Wingert) — do not hesitate to express their disdain for Tartuffe and his ostentatious religiosity.

Their resistance creates the central conflict of the play, as the intractable Orgon, embracing Tartuffe, struggles to control his rebellious household and impose his will.

“Tartuffe” will run through October 28, at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 259-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for reservations and further information.

Moliere’s Tartuffe deftly lampoons hypocrisy, self-righteous religious fanaticism, gullibility, and denial, but it is the theme of power and submission that Mr. Fish spotlights here. It is no coincidence that Mr. Grenier, in addition to leading TV roles in 24, Deadwood, and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, recently starred as Vice President Dick Cheney in the documentary drama “Stuff Happens” at the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Mr. Grenier’s Tartuffe is brutal and commanding with a quiet, icily calm demeanor. In his first minutes on stage he commits a vicious sexual assault that establishes his potential for unlimited further wickedness. Throughout the rest of the play his presence on stage is at best unsettling and at worst terrifying for the audience and the other characters, as he slyly works his way to gain control of Orgon and his family.

Meanwhile, Orgon wields his own despotic, abusive power over his household, most notably in forcing Mariane to marry Tartuffe rather than her beloved fiancé Valere (Daniel Cameron Talbott). This Orgon, both victim and villain, in his blustering, bullying and renunciation of key human values, is no less destructive than Tartuffe. It is the female characters — Elmire, Dorine, and Mariane — who suffer most severely the abuses of these power-hungry men.

Moliere’s play, in accord with the classic comedic formula, ultimately reaches a happy ending, with evil punished, virtue rewarded, youth triumphing over age, and the power of life prevailing over the forces of control and oppression. Here too, despite the heavy emphasis on the darker facets of the play and Fish’s impulse to provide constant surprises through costuming, technology, and other innovative staging choices, the life and spirit of Moliere’s masterpiece shine through.

The superb cast handles the rhymed couplets with a skill and intelligence that bring the characters and their conflicts to life. Ms. Wingert’s Dorine is especially strong, sharp-tongued, expressive, and funny in championing the cause of the young lovers and battling against the forces of evil. Mr. Donahue’s Cleante presents himself as a thoroughly level-headed, sympathetic, articulate, and engaging mouthpiece for the playwright, a voice of sanity amidst the surrounding passions. Christina Rouner, as a dignified, maltreated Elmire, constructs a serious, in-depth psychological portrait of this strong wife struggling powerlessly in her oppressive household.

The lovers, generally not the most exciting characters in Tartuffe, provide one of this production’s many surprises, as Ms. Beck’s taciturn Mariane and Mr. Talbott’s extravagantly vociferous and animated Valere create an unforgettably hilarious lover’s spat.

Two characters who appear with striking, plot-changing news in the final ten minutes of the play, Andy Patterson as M. Loyal the bailiff from the court and Tom Story as an officer from the king, seem to be emissaries from the modern world in this production, as they arrive in modern street clothes with the air of your usual casual visitor. The fact that Tartuffe makes his final appearance in nondescript present-day attire — Is this your boss on dress-down Friday? — provides further fuel for Mr. Fish’s blurring of the lines between the worlds of 1664 and 2007 and forcing the audience to contemplate the contemporaneity of the concerns of this play.

Kaye Voyce’s inventive costumes contribute richly to the production and its characterizations — for the most part convincingly in the style of the seventeenth century, elaborately colorful or starkly austere as appropriate.

In defense of his satiric method and in response to attacks and a five-year prohibition imposed by the clergy and the French parliament against his controversial Tartuffe, Moliere wrote, “We have seen that the theatre’s great virtue is its ability to correct vice. To expose vices to everyone’s laughter is to deal them a mighty blow.” Though Daniel Fish substitutes for that laughter an air of malevolence, a video experience, and a host of other surprising contrivances, he and his talented troupe bring forth much wit and searing satire here, along with many new perspectives on this enduring classic.

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