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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
In Moliere’s case, his sharp satire of society, in particular the excessive piousness of the church stained with misconduct, is a vision right at home in the 21st century. Whether it is excesses of state, church or of the 1% (oh, to be one of them!) misalliances of virtue and greed seem perfectly suited to modern man.
Director David Kennedy has dressed his cast in contemporary clothes to make sure we don’t miss the point. Poet Richard Wilbur, translator extraordinaire, has transformed the playwright’s 12-sylable verse into a more accessible (Shakespeare like) 10-sylable verse without losing an iambic iota of wit or comedy. The able cast handles the dialog with ease only occasionally coming down hard on the ending rhyme, like a heavy foot on a piano pedal.
The play takes place in the Paris home of Orgon (Mark Nelson) a wealthy businessman who has come under the influence of Tartuffe (Mark Kudisch) a skillful schemer whose trump card is flamboyant piety. Orgon and his mother, Madame Pernelle (Patricia Conolly) are totally bewitched by the man and his unending displays of martyr like humility.
No-one else in the household is duped by Tartuffe. Orgon’s wife Elmire (Nadia Bowers), son Damis (Justin Adams), daughter Mariane (Charise Castro Smith) and his brother-in-law Cleante (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) all smell a rat in saints’ clothing. Dorine (Jeanine Serralles), the plucky, out-spoken maid, is determined to expose the fraud. It takes a lot of scheming and a lot of rhyming jokes to finally bring down (zap!!!) the bad guy.
The production is a mixed bag. The set by Wilson Chin is a stylish, formal French chamber with elegant gold sconces and an upside down panorama of a Parisian scene as wall dressing. Costumes by Ilona Somogyi are bright and colorful but have little in common with one another. Their look is less a statement of a time or place than about eclectic shopping.
At the center of the production is the invigorating performance of Marc Kudisch as the charlatan Tartuffe. Looking like an animated version of Nick Nolte’s infamous DUI mug shot, he’s a more pro-active Tartuffe than usually encountered. He’s a smooth operator and one who always seems to be thinking of his next move or oily comment. With women, his groping hands seem synchronized to a hypnotic litany of romantic babble. Kudisch dominates, as he should, every scene he’s in and is a deliciously evil anti-hero.
Nelson is funny as a man who can turn the most scandalous accusations into sympathetic praise and Bowers is conversely amusing as his very aware wife and her part in the entrapment seduction scene is right on. Henderson is quite solid as the suspicious Cleante, and Adams and Castro Smith strike just the right notes of youthful immaturity as the young lovers, Damis and Mariane. Their lover’s quarrel – refereed by Dorine - is like a centuries old preview of George and Emily’s tiff in Our Town.
Nothing steals a show better than an oversized comic turn and Serralles makes the most of Dorine’s sassy, brassy demeanor. Her interpretation is the closest link to the present day and while it is often too broad it gets the laughs it aims for.
Patricia Conolly has the unfortunate task of opening the play and introducing the audience to not only its verse structure but to an outline of what is taking place in the household. It’s a slow go at first, but pro that she is, she puts bite into her lines and before long the show is up and rolling.
The director has two surprises that produce a jolt and a laugh near the end (no spoiler, I, to reveal them) other than to say one is ultra contemporary and the other ultra regal. See for yourself.