By Mike Hoban
‘Tartuffe’ – Written by Molière, Translated by Ranjit Bolt, Directed by Peter DuBois; Scenic Design, Alexander Dodge; Costume Design, Anita Yavich; Lighting Design, Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design, Ben Emerson; Choreographer, Daniel Pelzig; Original Music, Peter Golub. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Avenue of the Arts/Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through December 10
As someone who did not grow up reading the classics, and came into the theater later in life, I must admit that I don’t usually share the same sense of glee as some of my counterparts when it comes to reviewing plays written before the 19th century. The archaic language and rhythmic structure often make it difficult for the untrained ear to follow, and by the time I catch on, the first act is usually half over. Such is not the case with Tartuffe, the wickedly funny 1664 comedy by Molière now being staged at the Huntington. Powered by a wonderfully oily performance by Brett Gelman in the title role, Tartuffe is as accessible as any 20th century work, and a howl to boot.
Director Peter DuBois uses the lively 2002 translation by Ranjit Bolt, and he and his creative team add some modernizing touches to fashion a 17th Century France/Present Day mashup that is both relevant and hilarious. Bolt’s translation retains a truncated version of the rhyming couplets of the original text, creating a kind of Dr. Seuss for adults, and its stripped-down snappy dialogue works beautifully. The plot and structure also remain intact, so little is lost from the original storyline.
The show opens with a series of “vogue-ing” tableaus by the characters (including some very funny if somewhat puzzling S&M props), but begins in earnest with the entrance of family matriarch Madame Pernelle (Paula Plum). She angrily details the shortcomings of her entire family at cocktail hour while urging them to embrace the teachings of Tartuffe, an obvious charlatan whom she and her son Orgon (Frank Wood) have come to regard as a spiritual guide. The rest of the family clearly holds Tartuffe in outright contempt, and impertinent housemaid Dorine (Jane Pfitsch) – acting as the family mouthpiece – blisters his character with witty rhymes, but Madame P will hear none of it.
Shortly after, son Orgon returns from a business trip. Despite being told that his wife is recovering from an illness, he is interested only in the well-being of Tartuffe. The degree of his spiritual man-crush becomes abundantly clear when Orgon says that Tartuffe has changed his thinking to the point where, “I could see my own family die and not so much as blink an eye.” Further complicating matters, Orgon informs his only daughter, Mariane (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) that she is to marry Tartuffe, even though she was already given his blessing to marry her true love, Valere (Gabriel Brown).
But Tartuffe (who does not make a stage appearance until a third of the way into the play) has other ideas, turning his amorous attention instead to Elmire (Melissa Miller), Orgon’s stunning trophy wife. And this is where the production – which had been a clever exercise in wordplay (with a healthy dose of physical comedy) – strikes comedy gold. Gelman, who’s known primarily for his television comedy roles (Adult Swim) as well as Season 2 of Netflix’ “Stanger Things”, dives headfirst into the role of the faux spiritual sleazebag, and kicks the production into high comic gear. His scenes with Miller are creepily brilliant, particularly in light of sexual predation stories dominating the headlines today.
The cast is uniformly good, with some nice performances by Boston actors, particularly Plum in a brief but impactful performance as Madame Pernelle, and Sarah Oakes Muirhead as Mariane. Muirhead’s star continues to rise in Boston theater, and she proves to be as adept at physical comedy as she is in straight roles and musicals, drawing big laughs as she leaps on her beau Valere like a spider monkey in heat whenever he appears.
Miller is also a standout, whether maintaining her cool as Tartuffe tries to seduce her, or feigning interest in the loathsome creature as she tries to turn the tables on him. Pfitsch also mines her share of laughs with a spirited performance as the uppity Dorine. Set designer Alexander Dodge earns kudos for his work creating the glorious one-percenter digs, as does costume designer Anita Yavich, who merges 1600’s Paris with today’s catwalk – especially Mariane’s dazzling Louis the XIVth-meets-Judy Jetson outfit.
This Huntington production of Tartuffe blows up the notion that the Classics can’t be just as flat-out entertaining as any modern play – so see it for yourself. For more info, go to: https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/