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, upon hearing that his beloved Mariane is to be married to Tartuffe, tear 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 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 but are given to moving freely along with the decor from one place to the other. Perhaps the guard is imagining the rest of the play only suggested to him by the live feed on the monitors.
The clever installation in the gallery and the conceit of melding past and present could be seen by some as a distraction, but it proves 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 such 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. Currently in New York, however, is “The Misanthrope,” which has been duly deconstructed by the controversial director Ivo van Hove.
The plot of “Tartuffe,” in which Orgon, an upstanding citizen, allows himself and his family to become the victims of Tartuffe, 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, who played Dick Cheney in “Stuff Happens” at the New York Shakespeare Festival, is apparently no stranger to unscrupulous roles, and 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. All the action, each bit of business, and every expression reveals the company’s keen sense of technique yet fitted to a boldly contemporary approach.
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, the father, 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 to 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.
“Tartuffe,” through Sunday, October 28, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. www.mccarter.org or 609-258-2787.