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A CurtainUp Review

It's scandal, madam, that makes offense. And it's no sin to sin in confidence.—Tartuffe
Rachel Botchan and Dominic Cuskern (Photo: Gregory Constanza)
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere, made a career of poking fun at every layer of 17th century Parisian society, from the foppish courtiers and the learned ladies of the salons, to the ambitious bourgeoisie, educators, lawyers and doctors. In Tartuffe, the master comic playwright took aim at religious hypocrisy and, according to some, the church and religion itself. Not surprisingly, it took Moliere five years to convince King Louis to allow the play to be performed at Palais-Royal.

This season, Gus Kaikkonen directs Tartuffe at the Peal Theatre Company with no opposition from the Catholic Church or any religious groups. Yet the play has lost none of its relevancy in modern times. Take away the rhymed couplets and the period dress and set, and you have a thoroughly modern play — a play that is both a farce and an intelligent comment on how foolish people can be fooled by wolves in sheep's clothing.

Orgon (TJ Edwards) is a wealthy bourgeois with more money than brains. He finds a "pious" vagabond, named Tartuffe (Bradford Cover), takes him into his household and gives him free reign. In one of the funnier scenes, we see Tartuffe's servant Laurent (Kila Packett) covering up exposed private parts of the people depicted on the wall tapestries.

Orgon wants to wed Tartuffe to his lovely daughter, Mariane (Carrie McCrossen), even though she has already been promised to the man she truly loves, Valere (John William Schiffbauer). He is particularly pleased that Tartuffe keeps an eye on his much younger second wife, Elmire (Rachel Botchan). What Orgon doesn't know is that Tartuffe watches Elmire so closely not because he is trying to preserve her virtue but because he is infatuated with her. He declares his unwelcome attraction in a scene of singular salaciousness, while Orgon's son Damis (Sean McNall) hides in the closet. Even after Damis reveals Tartuffe's perfidy, Orgon stands firm. He would rather disinherit his son than believe the worst of this saintly man.

Aside from the family, there are two people who see Tartuffe as the con artist he really is, Elmire's brother, Cleante (Dominic Cuskern) and the family's maid, Dorine (Robin Leslie Brown). Cuskern, is excellent as the rasionneur, the voice of the author and a thankless job in a comedy, but one the play cannot do without. And Brown is marvelous in her sarcasm and good sense.

It is Dorine who gets between the two young lovers and gets them to end their foolish (and very funny) bickering so they can concoct a plan to foil Tartuffe. And she convinces Elmire to provide the trap for the imposter.

Brown might have stolen the show if not for the overall high level of acting throughout the cast. McNall, McCrossen and Schiffbauer all prove that the young can be every bit as silly as their elders. And Botchan has a gift for physical humor that rivals the great Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett.

However, it is Cover, whose original interpretation makes this Tartuffe unique. Rather than portray Tartuffe as the personification of evil, a man who cleverly plots against those he wants to fool, Cover's Tartuffe is an opportunistic con man who is often genuinely surprised at his own success. "What's with these people?" he often seems to say. And, quite delightfully, it is often the very ease of his triumphs that makes the play so funny.

Pearl is using the excellent and elegant translation of poet Richard Wilbur. Couplets fall from the actors' lips as easily as "Good morning. How's it going?" This makes no small contribution to the pleasure of watching the play. Tartuffe gives modern audiences the wonderful opportunity to step back into the 17th century and get a better look at the 21st.

By Moliere
Translated by Richard Wilbur
Directed by Gus Kaikkonen
Cast: TJ Edwards (Orgon), Rachel Botchan (Elmire), Carrie McCrossen (Mariane), Sean McNall (Damis), Robin Leslie Brown (Dorine), Carol Schultz (Mme. Pernelle), Dominic Cuskern (Cleante), John William Schiffbauer (Valere), Bradford Cover (Tartuffe), Kila Packett (Laurent), Julie Ferrell (Flipote), Kraig Swartz (M. Loyal, An Officer)
Set: Design: Harry Feiner
Costume Design: Sam Fleming
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission
Pearl Theatre Company, Theatre 80, 80 St. Mark's Place at 1st Avenue, (212) 598-9802,
From 3/17/09; opening 3/30/09; closing 4/19/09
Tuesday at 7PM; Wednesday at 2PM; Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8PM; Saturday and Sunday at 2PM
Ticket Prices: $25 for all preview performances; $45 for performances on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; $55 for performances on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Youth and Senior Tickets: $23 weekdays and $28 weekends. Remaining tickets at each performance can be purchased at a reduced price by people 24 and younger or 65 and older on the day of performance, one half-hour prior to curtain, subject to availability. Valid for 1 ticket only per ID in person at the box office. Thursday Rush Tickets: Remaining tickets for Thursday evening performances are available for $10 fifteen minutes prior to curtain. Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 28, 2009
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