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A CurtainUp NJ Review

Although I am a pious man, I am not the less a man. — Tartuffe
Brent Harris as Tartuffe (Photo credit: Jerry Dalia).
It doesn't take a genius to see why Molière's Tartuffe has remained his most popular and enduring play. It doesn't take a seer to see how its comically cautionary message resonates today as it will in all our tomorrows. It unflinchingly exhibits how easily gullible people can be duped and misguided by con men whether they appear to us skillfully in the political arena or more surreptitious in the guise of a religious leader.

Tartuffe is getting the stunning production it deserves, under the direction of Bonnie J. Monte, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. That Monte has not only moved the action of the play forward 100 years to the mid 18th century but quite audaciously has the acting company assume the mannerisms and recognizably 21st century body speak and vocal inflections that we see and hear around us every day. This, without compromising the musicality of the verse as translated by the great Richard Wilbur.

You will enjoy, as I did, seeing the actors layer their characters with what the French would call au courant, if probably to the dismay of the Comedie-Francaise.

We are hit with this splendid conceit right from the opening scene as Madame Pernelle (Vivian Reed) is berating her grandchildren for not showing the proper respect to a religious poseur Tartuffe (Brent Harris), who has become her son Orgon's (Patrick Toon) houseguest. Pernelle, who is a black actress, is giving full and unapologetic value to the cadence of her speech and the gestures associated with what we recognize as a stereotypically black attitude.

This serves the play better than you might think and proves how indestructible it is. It was very nearly destroyed at its premiere by King Louis XIV who was so enraged that he refused it a license for further performances. Condemned by the Catholic hierarchy, Molièere'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.

The plot, in which Orgon, an upstanding citizen, allows himself and his family to become the victims of a religious charlatan, races along its funnily wordy course without ever wearing out its welcome. The first act is spent waiting for Tartuffe's entrance. 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 perfectly wonderful performances. While Ms Reed has set the tone for the staging, praise is due early on for William Sturdivant, as the wise and philosophical brother-in-law Cléeante, whose quietly appealing performance no way stands in the way of the more animated behavior of the others.

An entrance worthy of his phony humility, Harris gives his all to the smarmier side of Tartuffe. His unctuous presence is most effectively seen as he puts the moves on Orgon's wife Elmire (fine performance by Caroline Kinsolving). The famous seduction scene is as hilarious as it meant to be. As Patrick Toon's Orgon is a model of blind gullibility, you may want to get up and wring his neck. This, as he tries and fails 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.. As the outspoken maid Dorine, Victoria Mack has us laughing aloud as we watch her discharge her blunt and crucial criticism without regard for her station.

Sarah Nicole Deaver is both charming and willful as the daughter Mariane, whom Orgon wants to marry off to Tartuffe instead of her real sweetheart Valèere (an excellent Mark Hawkins.) Also standout is Aaron McDaniel as the comically hot-headed Damis. All the action takes place within the elegant parlor of Orgon's home. A gallery above the parlor also allows for some very amusing comings and goings. Scenic designer Brittany Vasta's subdued palette of beige, blue and gold works well in contrast to the more dazzlingly colorful costumes that Nikki Delhomme has designed for the company. Go and be seduced.

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Tartuffe by Molièere
Directed by Bonnie J. Monte
Cast: Vivian Reed (Madame Pernelle), Delia Bannon (Flipote), CarolineKinsolving (Elmire), Victoria Mack (Dorine), Aaron McDaniel (Damis),Sarah Nicole Deaver (Mariane), William Sturdivant (Cléeante),Patrick Toon (Orgon), Mark Hawkins (Valèere), Brent Harris(Tartuffe), Drew Dix (Monsieur Loyal), Garrett Gray (Officer)
Scenic Designer: Brittany Vasta
Costume Designer: Nikki Delhomme
Lighting Designer: Matthew J. Weisgable
Sound Designer: Bonnie J. Monte
Production Stage Manager: Jackie Mariani
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes includingintermission
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre ,located on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison,N.J.
Performances: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays at 7:30 pm; Thursdays,Fridays, Saturdays at 8 pm; Matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.
From 05/16/18 Opened 05/19/18 Ends 06/03/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 05/19/18

NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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