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The Huntington’s 'Tartuffe' Is Thoroughly Modern Molière

Brett Gelman as the titular Tartuffe. (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre Company)MoreCloseclosemore
Brett Gelman as the titular Tartuffe. (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre Company)

The Huntington Theatre Company’s “Tartuffe” has one foot in 1664, the other in Trump Tower. And who’s surprised?

Director Peter DuBois has said that he woke up on the morning after the last presidential election not only stunned but with Molière’s 17th century satire of religious hypocrisy and gulled tyranny dancing, less like a sugar plum than a thunder bolt, in his head. Accordingly, his production (at the Huntington Avenue Theatre through Dec. 10) is set amid contemporary gilded splendor, though not without echoes of Louis XIV, that brings the 350-year-old comedy’s quackery, despotism and indictment uncannily close to home.

Jane Pfitsch as the maid Dorine and Sarah Oakes Muirhead as Mariane. (Courtesy T. Charles Erikson/Huntington Theatre Company)
Jane Pfitsch as the maid Dorine and Sarah Oakes Muirhead as Mariane. (Courtesy T. Charles Erikson/Huntington Theatre Company)

Not that Tartuffe equals Trump — nothing so prosaically specific as that. Certainly we have a lineup of political clowns in whom sanctimoniousness and lechery collide, with a similar mix of malevolence and self-justification. More to the point is Molière’s depiction of Orgon, Tartuffe’s wealthy mark, whose bullying egotism just makes him easier prey for an unctuous shyster more bent on seducing his sucker’s wife and stealing his stuff than on saving his soul.

It’s also interesting to note, among contemporary parallels, that Molière’s scathing comedy, banned for five years because it so incensed the clergy, got a new lease on performance when the playwright tacked on a deus-ex-machina ending flattering to France’s Sun King.

The difficulty of performing Molière for modern audiences lies in the comedies’ marriage of commedia-style farce with elegance and aphorism. The Huntington deploys a quick, rhyming translation by British versifier Ranjit Bolt that debuted in 2002 at England’s National Theatre. Whereas the late, great Richard Wilbur’s Molière translations replace the French playwright’s alexandrine couplets with iambic pentameter, Bolt substitutes oft-snappy eight-syllable rhymes. By and large, the translation gooses the broad comedy along without sacrificing Molière’s trademark archness — though some among the cast seem more than others to the phonemes born. Kudos to Jane Pfitsch, who, as sublimely impertinent maid Dorine, rattles off rhyme after rhyme with crisp, casual, class-bashing sass.

The cast of the Huntington's "Tartuffe." (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre Company)
The cast of the Huntington's "Tartuffe." (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre Company)

On the Huntington stage, a two-stories-high, diaphanous white curtain opens on what, in Alexander Dodge’s impressive design, looks like a multimillion-dollar, overwrought New York aerie furnished in white and gold. Here the pampered 1 percent is about to be snookered out of its privilege since absent patriarch Orgon has bought fake zealot Tartuffe’s piety act crucifix, hair-shirt and sinker. But if this is a sinking ship, it will go down in beauty as lighting designer Christopher Akerlind bathes the towering digs in varying vivid hues and costume designer Anita Yavich cloaks the show’s women in cinched, sexy, century-trotting duds.

It will also go down in vulgarity as Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and cable-TV funnyman Brett Gelman’s Tartuffe besmirches the surrounds with a snaky lasciviousness cloaked in sly conceit and the tatters of various religions. Looking less like a typical Tartuffe of any era than a wolf in Tevye’s clothing and wielding a fez and tambourine as well as a cross and scourge, Gelman is a sort of Low Life Force among the show’s variously icy, worldly, hotheaded or shallow dramatis personae.

Frank Wood as Orgon and Brett Gelman as Tartuffe. (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre Company)
Frank Wood as Orgon and Brett Gelman as Tartuffe. (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre Company)

By contrast, Tony Award-winner Frank Wood’s Orgon comes across as deliberately robotic, occasionally erupting into cool violence (the Orgon parlor is supplied with a convenient array of gilt-tipped canes) but never into full-throttle fury, even when denouncing the unmasked Tartuffe as a “fiend.” And Orgon’s wife Elmire’s brother, Cléante, usually touted as the play’s voice of reason, comes across in Matthew J. Harris’ slick, assured, glad-handing performance as more glib than measured.

This “Tartuffe” starts a little slowly (well, after a clever snapshot opening that melds the 17th and 21st centuries). This is in part the playwright’s fault, since he doesn’t introduce either Tartuffe or Orgon until later, allowing the latter’s family to snipe at one another over the patriarch’s infatuation with the con man. It is also that the tall, opulent setting tends to dwarf the characters, as do the actors’ efforts to make the couplets, sometimes bounced among characters, seem natural rather than stilted.

Gabriel Brown as Valère, Sarah Oakes Muirhead as Mariane and Frank Wood as Orgon in "Tartuffe." (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre Company)
Gabriel Brown as Valère, Sarah Oakes Muirhead as Mariane and Frank Wood as Orgon in "Tartuffe." (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre Company)

Things heat — as well as loosen -- up once Orgon unveils his plan to marry his daughter, Mariane, hotly affianced to Valère, to Tartuffe instead. Albeit propelled by the gutsier Dorine to rebel, Sarah Oakes Muirhead’s Mariane, in fuchsia flounces and beribboned stilettos, turns literally as well as figuratively spineless and begins dazedly pouring herself across the furniture in a fashion that’s funny indeed. And once Tartuffe gets his, well, nerve up and sets out, brandishing a creepy mix of crassness and couplets, to bed the evasive Elmire, outright sex farce ensues. The scene in which Orgon is sequestered to behold his own intended cuckolding, and is damned slow to cut it short, is its usual surefire self -- in no small part due to Melissa Miller’s Elmire’s increasing exasperation at having to pimp herself out.

Moreover, Molière’s last-minute rescue of Orgon and kin is surprisingly, as well as ironically, pulled off in a manner involving not only Tartuffe being hoisted (and not by his own petard) but also a helicopter, a frame-up and a Taser. Consummate showman Molière would have loved it. Nor would he object, I think, to his cautionary tale’s having the departing audience dancing up the aisles as the folks in Trump Tower celebrate being saved from a blatant fraud — and themselves.


The Huntington Theatre Company’s "Tartuffe" runs through Dec. 10.

Carolyn Clay Theater Critic, The ARTery
Carolyn Clay, a theater critic for The ARTery, was for many years theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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