Review: OSF presents a witty, naughty, accessible 'Tartuffe'

The very funny new production of Molière's "Tartuffe" that opened Saturday night at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival boasted some of the festival's premier actors. There was Anthony Heald, back at OSF from his role as Scott Guber in "Boston Public" and other work, as the phony holy man who provides the play's name. And there was Richard Elmore as the rich bourgeois Orgon, who has fallen under Tartuffe's sway.

But the man who arguably may be the production's biggest star was not seen but heard. That would be Ranjit Bolt, the English translator and adapter who fit the fine wine of the classic loosely into a new skin of rhyming couplets. Bolt got an assist from director Peter Amster and dramaturg David Copelin, who made things yet more user-friendly by swapping out some of Bolt's Britishisms for American vernacular. The result, although purists may grouse, is witty, charming, naughty and accessible.

The actors for the most part manage to get through Bolt's verse in fluid fashion, sometimes finishing each other's lines and seldom if ever standing around. In the dining table seduction scene, Orgon's wife, in extremis, tries to ward off the randy holy man saying in the middle of the action, "And now you're rushing to the sweet before we've had the soup and meat!"

Amster stages Molière's classic with high octane and 17th-century opulence, with Richard Hay's elegantly subdued set a foil for Mara Blumenfeld's gorgeous, colorful (except for the black-clad Tartuffe) costumes. It is bound to bring to mind the antics of certain televangelists and others.

Tartuffe (Heald) has insinuated himself into the family of Orgon (Elmore) by feigning great religiosity. Orgon is so enthralled by Tartuffe's spiritual claptrap that he is ready to marry off his daughter, Mariane (Laura Morache), to the hypocrite and leave him his entire estate, disinheriting everybody else. Almost everybody else in the household — Orgon's wife, Elmire (Suzanne Irving), his son, Damis (Gregory Linington), his brother-in-law, Cleante (Richard Howard), and the maid, Dorine (Linda Alper) — sees through Tartuffe.

Which is no great feat, since Tartuffe pretty much reveals himself to them. In a telling scene, rather than deny the charges brought against him by Damis, Tartuffe sheds crocodile tears and condemns himself as a helpless sinner. The show of fake humility makes your skin crawl — and sets Tartuffe's hook even harder in Orgon's pliable psyche.

The great charlatan does not enter until almost time for the intermission. When he does he is endowed by Heald with an air of self-importance and the dead eyes of a reptile. His first line, delivered to his acolyte, Laurent (John Michael Goodson), says it all: "My hair shirt needs wringing out."

At the play's center has always been the question of how Orgon can be so blind as not to see this mock-pious con man for the scheming fraud he so obviously is. Elmore answers by lighting up in Tartuffe's presence as if warming in a spiritual glow.

Elmore's eyes turn flinty in the many conflicts he has with family members over this snake in their midst. But something like a lovelight comes into them in his dealings with Tartuffe. Orgon is a man of a certain age lost in the heady, dream-like state of an unexpected love affair. And there's no fool like an old fool.

Alper and Irving are marvels, but the play's energy must come from the Orgon-Tartuffe axis, and Elmore and Heald have the chemistry to deliver. By the time Elmire forces Orgon to see the real Tartuffe in the dining table scene, the family's goose would seem to be cooked — but for what might be the most flagrant deus ex machina in world theater.

It's as if Molière, knowing which side his bread was buttered on, was throwing a big, wet, sycophantic kiss to Louis XIV, who would eventually protect the play from the church. We don't believe it for a minute. But there is Molière, who has shown us the mysteries of a foolish heart, winking at us over the absurdity, and we laugh with him across the centuries.

"Tartuffe" plays through Oct. 27 in the OSF's Angus Bowmer Theatre.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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