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Devout of This World

Vagabond Players Turn Up The Satire in Molière's Timeless Comedy

REACH AROUND: (from left) Katherine Lyons, Seamus Dockery, and Harry Turner are feeling Gaul right.

By John Barry | Posted 5/16/2007

Tartuffe By Molière

At Vagabond Players through May 20

For as long as the world is full of hypocrites and the gullible idiots who take what they shovel out with no questions asked, there's going to be a place for Molière's Tartuffe. With their latest production--full-throttled and right on target--the Vagabond Players have extended that play's lease on life a little longer.

There's something about a dramatic production in carefully metered verse that might set up warning lights for anyone attending a night at community theater. First of all, it's hard to improvise when the lines get scrambled. Second, the conventions of the 17th-century stage don't always go over smoothly. Thanks in part to Richard Wilbur's excellent translation, that isn't a problem with this cast. The rhyming couplets wind up sounding so natural that by the end of the evening this particular audience member was beginning to think in them.

Under the direction of Vagabond veteran Barry Feinstein, the Tartuffe cast not only takes up the challenge of 17th-century comedy but also revels in its conventions, the wigs, the beauty spots, and the era's carefully choreographed gestures. Instead of trying to temper Molière, or revolutionize him, the Vagabonds turn him up a notch, probably to a degree that would have gotten the French playwright in more trouble than he already did.

One of the treasures of this production is Seamus Dockery, who, in his curled wig and overpowdered face, is the credulous oaf who makes this play possible. His Orgon has fallen under the spell of the slimy, hypocritical Tartuffe. (Appropriately, it takes much of the first act to bring Tartuffe onstage.) Meanwhile, Orgon has been exposing his wife to Tartuffe's lascivious clutches, and is ready to offer his daughter Marianne (Laura Malkus) to Tartuffe in marriage. In other words, he's not just a cuckold--he's a serial cuckold.

Marianne objects to her father's plans, and Malkus takes her to the brink of tears as the histrionic yet compliant waif contemplates the future with the aging Tartuffe. Her lover, Valere (Morgan Stanton), is petulant and furious--not at Tartuffe, but at Marianne. And their go-between is the ever-present Dorine (Amy Jo Shapiro), who manages to prompt this ineffectual pair into standing up for their rights. Shapiro looks born for the role of the well-endowed, wily servant; without trying to steal the stage, she carefully navigates the hapless clan of confused French nobility into a semblance of sanity.

Tartuffe (Harry Turner) himself is a piece of work. He cultivates Catholic guilt with the tenderness of a gardener and uses it as a sort of love drug. Turner hits his stride when, after trying to woo Orgon's wife into bed, he gets caught in the act. His confession of guilt, given with full-throated gesticulations, is so outrageous that he wins Orgon over to his side and gets Orgon to turn over his estate to him. Turner captures both Tartuffe's hypocrisy and innately diabolical inner core. In this era of high-powered--and often insincere--apologies, he could probably run for higher office.

Orgon's wife, the object of Tartuffe's lust, is played by Katherine Lyons, who manages to balance her character's disgust at Tartuffe with a coquettish flair. When she tricks Tartuffe into dry-humping her on the dining room table while Orgon hides underneath, there's more than a hint of a desperate housewife there. Not that she really wants Tartuffe, but she wants somebody to grab her and have his way with her. As her brother-in-law Cleante, Mike Styer plays the part of an irritating moderate who, in his constant attempts to make peace, manages to irritate everybody. Bruce Godfrey puts in a good cameo at the end as the good-natured Bailiff, who has the task of kicking Orgon and his family out of their estate.

There's nothing subtle about this production's best scenes, replete with door slamming, pouting, ripping of bloomers, and wielding of crosses. While there is roughness at the edges, and the occasional improvised couplet, it all depends what you're looking for in Molière. In this production's best moments, the Vagabond Players ably ride the waves of this furious, farcical, damnation of piety as a crutch and an enabler.

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