Farce is designed for more than pleasant laughter and fingertips-to-palm applause. In celebration of that, an all-stops-out production of Molière’s Tartuffe is being staged at Brown University Theatre (through October 4), and it gets the audience to put the roar in uproarious.
This comedy about a charlatan posing as a pious Christian may be more than 350 years old, but it will seem fresh and contemporary as long as sanctimonious politicians can’t keep their private parts out of the news.
A breathless pace and rat-a-tat-tat dialogue give the proceedings the unstoppable momentum of a two-hour-plus pratfall, as director Mia Rovegno ringmasters the Sock & Buskin troupe. In Leeds Theatre, the audience surrounds the players on three sides, close to the action. (Don’t worry about the spit takes — these guys are careful apprentice professionals.)
In the program, Rovegno pulls a quote from Molière’s Don Juan that is especially pertinent: “Hypocrisy is a fashionable vice, and all the fashionable vices pass for virtues. The best character you can play is the devout man, and the professional hypocrite has some marvelous advantages. The artful imposter is always respected, and even when he’s found out, no one dares say anything against him.”
That’s worth citing at length because it indicates how close to reality Molière felt he could draw this outrageous caricature.
A wealthy householder named Orgon (Matt Bauman) is the real central figure here. He has taken into his home an impoverished man, Tartuffe (Aubie Merrylees), who claims to be poor because of generosity, and Orgon is in turn taken in himself. Things start with Orgon’s imperious mother, Madame Pernelle (Jing Xu), interminably laying down the law to servants and some relatives about how their saintly guest is to be treated. She remains imperiously impervious to both reason and heated argument as Cleante (Lee Taglin), Orgon’s brother-in-law, fulminates over how the man is obviously a blatant fraud.
As delightfully established here, Orgon is as enraptured as a giddy teenaged lover. Bauman establishes and plays up a rollicking gay subtext, which additionally serves to provide comically plausible motivation for Orgon’s loyalty. When Orgon describes Tartuffe as “such a man,” I do believe I heard little birds chirping and saw tiny hearts floating up.
Molière has the comedy hit the ground running, mid-story. Just as Tartuffe is safely entrenched before the play begins, so too this production starts with the energy dial at 11 and never drops below 10. Director Rovegno has this Tartuffe cooking away on high heat, reducing this comedy to its comic essence. You know how a wonderful actor you admire, like Meryl Streep, is usually providing more than one or two emotional changes in a sentence — or a word? Well, Rovegno has these talented actors pack into every moment as many reactions and expressions and bits of stage business as they can. It works because this is all in an exaggerated slapstick farcical style as remote from realistic interplays as Steve Carell is from Dick Cheney.
Tartuffe doesn’t appear for quite a while, and he doesn’t have to, because his behavior and disruptive impact have been on display from scene one. Merrylees underplays him nicely, so the busyness around him stands in greater contrast. The servant Dorine (Lauren Neal) has a lot to do, marshaling forces against the poseur and bucking up the spirits of Mariane (Elizabeth Rothman), the daughter that Orgon has pledged to Tartuffe, despite her betrothal to the young man she loves, Valere (Max Posner).