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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 26,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Tartuffe’

To a professional critic (I have been one myself) theater-going is

the curse of Adam. The play is the evil he is paid to endure in the

sweat of his brow; and the sooner it is over, the better. (From the

preface to "Saint Joan," by George Bernard Shaw.)

It is quite possible that there is a member or two of the New Jersey

Shakespeare Festival who feels kinship with Jean-Baptiste Poquelin,

a 21-year-old law student who had little or no qualms about

chucking his studies and running off to join a struggling theatrical

repertory company. Since an actor’s inspiration can tend to be as

ephemeral as his career, any fellow artist’s triumph over seemingly

insurmountable odds can serve as reassurance and support, even if the

triumph occurred over 300 years ago. I’m referring to a young

whippersnapper who lost little time taking over as star and director

of the drama company and author of its plays. Not stopping at that, he

changed his name to Moliere, married the leading lady, and with his

brilliance soon won the heart and patronage of King Louis XIV.

Since royal patronage is hard to come by these days, a classical

repertory company has to make sure that it is putting its best foot

forward for their sponsors and supporters. It has to demonstrate that

its contribution is as vital and important an experience in the

development of actors as it was in Moliere’s time.

Moliere certainly had his problems with "Tartuffe." At its premiere

King Louis XIV gave the play the equivalent of an "X" rating and

refused it 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.

Would that an X rating be affixed this condemnable NJSF staging, not

for its content, but for so much unacceptable acting, sloppy

direction, and the lack of care and control of this staging. The play

opened Saturday, September 15, and performances continue through

Sunday, September 30.

With most of the first act 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. Oh,

that the wait — with one exception — would have been shorter given

the painful and perfunctory delivery of the great Richard Wilber’s

verse translation. The exception is Craig Wallace, as brother-in-law

Cleante, whose clear, precise, and mercifully believable performance

was almost unsettling.

Ceremoniously and mysteriously, by way of either the French doors of

an upstairs gallery, or rising from a trap door in the parlor, Daniel

Oreskes, as Tartuffe, enters and peers at us languorously as though at

the end of a night’s stupor. This he will do with the other actors

throughout the evening, his unctuous presence supported by his

slightly tilted head and fey demeanor, as he puts the move on the

housemaid Dorine, and her mistress Elmire. More often than not, and

through no fault of anyone else, Oreskes has the effect of diminishing

rather than dominating the action.

The play’s descent is done with remarkable swiftness; each bit of

business, every expression (that includes almost everyone) tends to

indicate a lack of technique, style, and anything resembling character

involvement. When laughter is begged, comedy loses its fun. But what

are we to expect of Oreskes after an opening monologue by Judith

Roberts, as Madame Pernelle, that exemplifies what is best described

as the nadir of versifying; call it terrifying. What are we to make of

so many of the actors who, under the guidance of director Paul

Mullins, make it their mission to stress only the rhyming word in a

couplet. Didn’t these actors ever hear of trusting rather than

indicating the text? The result is numbing. And what are we to make of

Mullins’ vision to pose people in straight or diagonal lines, have

them walk through imaginary walls, rarely connect to one and other,

and to generally disregard the subtleties that can mark a character

and the opportunities for an audience to observe the ironic, satiric,

yet substantial, subtext of Moliere’s masterpiece.

One has a right to hope that the family that Tartuffe has ensnared

will have much to contribute, or so it seemed in the past. Oblivious

to the deception the father Orgon (Wally Dunn) 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

to make him see the light that is the crux of the play. As a victim of

this staging, the boorishly consigned Dunn matches Oreskes in making

his presence unpleasant. But together they can’t offset the affront to

the text that gives Leslie Geraci, as Dorine, her raison d’etre.

As the daughter Mariane, whom Orgon wants to marry off to Tartuffe

instead of her real sweetheart Valere, curly-coifed Mia Barron made a

commendable attempt at simple-mindedness. Jeffrey Binder’s Valere was

distinguished in that he appeared to be conveying a stylishly comic

intent. Credit Binder and Barron with bringing the play to a robust

and rollicking life, if only for a brief moment, in the lover’s feisty

confrontation scene.

Tamara Tunie’s performance as Orgon’s wife, cannot be faulted for its

earnestness, but her charm was as indistinct as it was distant, making

the famous seduction scene with Oreskes arch and uncomfortable. Maybe

Mullins’ direction failed to inspire in his cast any signs of flair,

esprit de corps, or elan, but it sure instigated what looks like a

rebellion from Cameron Roberts, whose hideous collection of

contemporary clothes did little to offset the ugliness of Michael

Schweikardt’s fleur-de-lis flocked setting.

I couldn’t help but think that this production looks a lot like a

throwback to some of the festival’s bad old days when mediocrity

prevailed. A final word to NJSF: too many second-rate actors are

coming back again and again, season after season. There’s a large pool

of talent out there, both fresh and seasoned. Everyone connected with

the festival should try to get to McCarter Theater to see its current

production of "Romeo and Juliet." That’s the kind regional theater

production that helps us weather the storms and the worst that the

world has to offer.

— Simon Saltzman

Tartuffe , New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, 36 Madison

Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $26 to $32. Performances continue

through September 30.

Review: `A Chorus Line’

It is hard to believe that 10 years have passed since

the Paper Mill Playhouse last staged "A Chorus Line," only

a few months after the musical ended its 15-year run on Broadway.

That so many of us can still respond to the passionately shared

personal

life stories of dancers says something about the durability of this,

one of the most emotional musicals you are ever likely to see.

For those not in tune with the difficulties that mark the life of

the gypsy artist, the musical will feel like a music and dance

propelled

group therapy session. In many ways it is, as expressed by the show’s

director Baayork Lee, Connie in the original cast: "It important

that the audience realized that those people on stage are portraying

real lives — that most of the original cast members were speaking

about themselves." Another approach, and the one I take, is to

view it as a series of lyrically developed, overlapping confessionals

that have been fused into a genuinely impassioned show biz story.

These special "gypsies," originally a group of handpicked

proteges of Michael Bennett (who conceived, choreographed, and

directed

them in a workshop initiated project) came to be the subject of one

of the most extraordinary successes in Broadway history. During its

record-breaking run of 6,137 performances at the Shubert Theater,

the musical nurtured quite a galaxy of performers who have since

continued

successful careers.

Lee, who is a noted keeper-of-the-flame, having re-staged the show

many times throughout the world, is repeating the task she did for

Paper Mill’s 1991 production. And, once again, designer Robin Wagner’s

original mirrored settings have been faithfully reproduced, as have

the costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge.

There was a profound motivation and a dazzling concept behind "A

Chorus Line" that seemed to break with all precedent. Lee’s

staging

continues to reflect the sure hand of someone who cares deeply, even

if some of the principals may not seem now as vivid and unforgettable

as were those who were there at the beginning. If this production

is marked by anything, it is the ensemble dancing, certainly a major

emotional force.

Even before its authors James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante had begun

to give a dramatic structure to the hours of revealing taped

conversations

between the director and the dancers, Bennett was rehearsing his

astounding

company in a provocatively conceptualized audition process. Added

to this was Marvin Hamlisch’s (best) score (with dynamic lyrics by

Edward Kleban). It is a score that remains an evocative ear-opener.

Particularly now that we have seen on Broadway just last season "A

Class Act," the Tony-nominated musical that told Kleban’s show-biz

story, the lyrics resonate with even more punch.

Lee continues the process, as does the character of the director

within

the musical. He is Zach, the demanding and aggressive choreographer

who leads the dancers through the demanding routines and also, often

painfully, out of their defensive emotional shells. Amazingly, the

funny-and-sad stories weave effectively through the music and dance

sequences with a strong central narrative thrust.

Even the strongly characterized Zach’s (given a thick-skinned

no-nonsense

portrayal by Mark Bove) emotional involvement with Cassie (Caitlin

Carter), as revealed through the dance-spotlighted "The Music

and the Mirror" is designated as just another one of the show’s

more emotionally wrenching episodes. Carter is not only touching but

terrific as Zach’s former lover and the "special" dancer who

has tried unsuccessfully to become a star but who now wants

desperately

to get this job in the chorus.

The success of any "Chorus Line" must be measured by the

effectiveness

of its individual performers, as well as by its collective brilliance.

In this case, Kim Shriver comes on strong and aggressively sexy as

Sheila. Cindy Marchionda, as the tennis shoe-tapping Diana, put over

the hit ballad "What I Did for Love," with

Bronxian-incorporated

overtones. Continuing to be emotionally compelling is the poignant

monologue by Luis Villabon, as the Cyd Charisse-wannabe Paul. Other

performers who stand out include Robert Tunstall, who, as Bobby,

decides

during a low point in his life that "to commit suicide in Buffalo

is redundant," and Brenda Hamilton, who, as Kristine, wanted to

be Doris Day but "I couldn’t sing."

Whatever your reaction to "A Chorus Line," and this is a show

that prompts many different reactions, you won’t deny that this is

a valentine to all the "gypsies" — those relentlessly

committed dancers who appear in show after show, mostly unrecognized

— who train and audition and hope to make it big, but who rarely

ever reach the solo spotlight. One performer who made it big in "A

Chorus Line" is Donna McKechnie, who played Cassie in the original

production. She will be appearing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in her

acclaimed solo act "Inside the Music" in a special one-night

only concert on Tuesday, October 2.

— Simon Saltzman

A Chorus Line, Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn,

973-376-4343.

$29 to $59. To October 14.


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