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LETTERS TO EDITOR
by Les Gutman
Among all English language dramatic translations, there is less debate, scholarly or otherwise, about Richard Wilbur's work on Molière than just about anything else. His verse translation of Tartuffe, in particular, is precise, classic and yet exceptionally accessible. It is, literally, second to none, and this production's decision to utilize it is as sensible as it is obvious.
So when I say that something has been lost in the translation in this outdoor staging of Tartuffe, it is not in the transition from language to language, but rather in the execution and delivery of the translated words. It is, moreover, a bizarrely mixed bag, with performances as well as ideas ranging from excellent to terrible. Mark Brokaw, a director who has brilliantly given vivid illumination to the words of some of our best living playwrights, seems to have lost his way or, more evidently, his usual razor-sharp control.
Tartuffe is a play not so much about a religious hypocrite as a scoundrel -- in either case, Tartuffe (Dylan Baker), and not so much either as a gullible fool, Orgon (Charles Kimbrough), who refuses to see through scheming affectation. It must be a genetic condition because Orgon's mother, Madame Pernelle (Dana Ivey), suffers from it ten-fold. The remainder of Orgon's household, led by Orgon's wife, Elmire (J. Smith-Cameron), is scandalized: they see right through Tartuffe.
These estimable actors are the play's key, and their basic performances do not let us down. In theory, this should be enough to overcome any assault other forces make on the production. But they are not left in peace.
The play actually opens with astounding promise. Riccardo Hernandez's parquet-floor set, framed by three pairs of French doors, does a beautiful job of bringing the outdoors in. John Gromada has written lively music that loudly trumpets the mischievous 17th Century mood. Dana Ivey bursts on the scene and renders a sensational, aggressive portrayal of the pious mother. We also get our first glimpse of Jess Goldstein's descriptive, colorful (or intentionally colorless) period costumes.
But enough of the show's undoing is on display to raise a warning flag. At its center is Mary Testa, the maid, Dorine. This is a role that ought to be funny and confrontational, but essentially incidental. Not here. Brokaw makes her brassy, discordant and pervasive -- enough to divert anyone's attention from the written play. And what Testa does (with or without Brokaw's complicity) to Wilbur's iambic pentameter is contemptuous. Her off-key song, furthermore, has only one note.
Curtis McClarin's Damis is also wrong, albeit for a different reason. Whereas Testa at least seems cast correctly, McClarin is too old and in control to portray Orgon's son. His main function is to overhear Tartuffe's outrageous romantic advances on Elmire, and to react with the sort of unbridled impulse one would expect from a step-son hearing his step-mother propositioned: he insists on telling his father. Here he seems to have a more complex agenda, beside which his line readings are a mess.
The promise of eternal salvation causes man to do some pretty strange things; in Orgon's case, it permits him to suspend his power to reason, and put his faith, his sympathy and his considerable net worth in the hands of a con man, Tartuffe. He even offers his daughter Mariane's (Danielle Ferland) hand in marriage. Here, that daughter sounds and acts more like the colleague of Mr. Kimbrough's character on Murphy Brown, Corky Sherwood, than anyone's 17th Century daughter. More of the rest of the cast is fine; Wendell Pierce as Orgon's brother-in-law, Cléante, especially so. But Brokaw draws broad eccentric performances out of most of them, almost always to the detriment of Molière's text which is amply entertaining without interference. It's as if he didn't have faith that Molière's words would survive the late summer nights without the adornment of a bawdy cartoon. Too bad.
Kimbrough and Smith-Cameron survive mostly unscathed. He is monstrously funny, and she is particularly forceful and assured. Dylan Baker, whose acting certainly can't be faulted, is not as lucky. He is called on to exaggerate every base force as if any subtleties might be missed by a non-paying audience. Speaking of which, many in the audience would have gladly paid to be spared the sight of Baker's naked glory in a seduction scene explicit enough to draw an "R" rating.
Yes, except for foiled Tartuffe, they all still live happily ever after.