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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Although I am a pious man, I am not the less a man. — Tartuffe

Zach Grenier (Tartuffe) and Christopher Donahue ( Cléante, seen on video screen) in Moliere's Tartuffe [The Imposter].
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
When director Daniel Fish deconstructed Hamlet for the McCarter a few seasons back he gave us a staging that included a scene with the royal Dane in the raw. It was a controversial staging but about which I said, "Fish's notion to evade the antiquity of the play by placing it in an abstracted space works remarkably well." The same can be said for Tartuffe, Moliere's most popular and most frequently produced play.

In what is becoming Fish's signature statement, you will see an infuriated Valere who, upon hearing that his beloved Mariane is to be married to Tartuffe, tears off his clothes in her presence. In contrast to the more completely stripped down Hamlet, this production is a dazzler. This time, Fish is a bit more reverential of this play's classic stature, time and place, even as he affords us a wonderfully new and contemporized perspective. The body language and attitudes throughout are decidedly au courant.

John Conklin's scenic design is a marvel as it separates the interior of what is presumably a modern art gallery and Orgon's lavish home in Paris. Two thirds of the stage is given to the spare gallery in which a guard sits quietly on a corner chair. One third of the stage reveals a lavish 17th century Parisian boudoir in which a woman in modern attire and with a camcorder is seen recording the action, its images being sent directly to the two large monitors in the gallery. This is not to say that the characters remain restricted to their space. They are given to moving freely along with the décor from one place to the other. Perhaps it is the guard's imagining of the rest of the play only suggested to him by the tableau vivant.

The clever installation in the gallery and the conceit of melding past and present could be seen by some as a distraction, but it will prove to be no problem as the play proceeds. Moliere, on the other hand, had a big problem with Tartuffe. At its premiere King Louis XIV was so enraged by the play that he refused it a license for further performances. Condemned by the Catholic hierarchy, Moliere's ferocious attack on religious hypocrisy provoked such violent reactions from the French Parliament and clergy that the play and the theater were closed.

Only by later changing the play's name to The Imposter could it find deserved success. Of course, Tartuffe now stands redeemed for the ages as one of the great comic plays in dramatic literature. And when it is staged and performed with imagination and panache, as it is at the McCarter Theater, it cannot help but be rewarding. After all, it has an uproariously funny text as well as a ferocious message.

If we are to give Moliere proper credit for his dramatic genius are we not also obligated to do the same for the incomparable Richard Wilbur, whose English verse translation has remained peerless? Numerous productions of Tartuffe in recent years seem to outnumber many equally fine plays in Moliere's canon. The Misanthrope, currently in New York, has been duly deconstructed by the controversial director Ivo van Hove (review).

Tartuffe's plot, in which Orgon, an upstanding citizen, allows himself and his family to become the victims of , a religious charlatan, races along with both grace and humor. The first act is spent waiting for Tartuffe's entrance, which we know from experience is akin to the second coming. The besieged household is given time to inform us on just how each one feels about the presence in their home of this pious hypocrite. The wait is half the fun given the delightful performances. Initial praise is due Christopher Donahue, as the wise and philosophical brother-in-law Cleante, whose disarmingly relaxed performance in no way stands in the way of the more externalized behavior of the others.

.Zach Grenier is no stranger to unscrupulous roles (he played Dick Cheney in the NYShakespeare Festival's Stuff Happens ). His Tartuffe is even smarmier than the image that usually prevails for the falsely pious title character. Grenier presents a more immediately unctuous presence as he puts the moves on Orgon's wife Elmire. His off-putting demeanor as he dominates the action is notable for its restraint.

With the opening monologue offered by an autocratic Beth Dixon, as Madame Pernelle, the tone is set for the excellent versifying to come. The family that Tartuffe has ensnared has much to contribute. Oblivious to Tartuffe's deception, Orgon (Michael Rudko) tries and fails, thank goodness, to convince his wife, son, daughter, brother-in-law and servant of Tartuffe's piety and sincerity. It is his family's attempt at making him see the light that is the crux of the play. Rudko is a model of blind gullibility. As the outspoken maid Dorine, Sally Wingert earns laughter as she discharges her blunt and crucial criticism without regard for her station.

As the daughter Mariane, whom Orgon wants to marry off to Tartuffe instead of her real sweetheart Valere, Michelle Beck makes the case for being both charming and willful, and looks irresistibly rich, as does everyone, in Kaye Voyce's sumptuous costumes. As Valere, Daniel Cameron Talbott affected the most comically incorrigible behavior in and out of his pants. Christina Rouner, as Orgon's wife, makes the most of her patrician charms as she entices Tartuffe in the famous and hilarious seduction scene. Go and be seduced.

  By Moliere
  Directed by Daniel Fish
  Cast: Beth Dixon, Michael Rudko, Christina Rouner, Nick Westrate, Michelle Beck, Daniel Cameron Talbott, Christopher Donahue, Zach Grenier, Sally Wingert, Andy Paterson, Tom Story Set Design: John Conklin
  Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
  Lighting Design: Jane Cox
  Video Design: Alexandra Eaton
  Sound Design: Karin Graybash
  Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
  Matthews Theater at the McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ. (609) 258 – ARTS or
  Prices: ($15 to $55)
  Performances: Monday to Friday at 7:30 PM; Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 3 & 8 PM; Sunday at 2 & 7:30 PM.
  Opened Friday 10/12/07 Ends 10/28/07
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/13/07

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