Presented by ACT I
Through Nov. 6 at the Darkhorse Theater
I'm through with pious men," the Frenchman Orgon declares in Molière's Tartuffe, the current ACT I production at Darkhorse Theater. It sounds so easy and obvious when he utters the words, but the deluded dunderhead has arrived at his truth the hard way, risking his financial security and the loyalty and devotion of his family. As he fails to perceive the true intentions of the religious charlatan Tartuffewho feigns holiness, inveigles his way into Orgon's home and strives to seduce his wife, then take his house and moneythe poor Orgon invites pity. Yet he's so maddeningly obtuse that it turns out to be a lot more entertaining to laugh at him, and Molière's classic 1664 script eggs us on.
Richard Wilbur's fabulous 1965 translation of the play continues to be a model of adaptive artistry. His rhyming couplets are definitive and lively, and they offer even a community theater group a fighting chance to confront 17th century French farce and deliver on its essential messages and sublime wit.
Marc Mazzone, a skilled performer in the classics and a lit professor at Tennessee State University, would appear to be a good choice to direct Tartuffe, and for the most part, he is. But Mazzone has a few actors in his cast who, try nobly as they might, simply can't infuse the amazing words with any character. The chief transgressor is David Bayer, who, as Orgon's wise brother-in-law Cleante, is charged with articulately and patiently showing Orgon the error of his ways. Bayer cleanly and carefully imparts his speeches, but he fails to execute them with any bite.
To be sure, though, Mazzone and his players succeed more often than they misfire. This is especially true when the animated Valerie Meek, only 17 years old, flits all over the stage as a blond-bobbed Dorine, the sarcastic household maid who functions as a kind of one-woman Greek chorus. Meek is rawly talented, occasionally imprecise in her moves and gestures, but she's mostly a pixieish delight, with a precocious grasp of Wilbur's cleverly sing-songy poetry.
In past Darkhorse Theater performances, Trish Moalla has bared her breasts and played a bi-curious divorcee. Here she takes on the role of Mme. Pernelle, Orgon's mother, and she seems quite at home playing an austere elderly lady, rattling off her lines with a sober conviction laced with prim foolishness.
Mazzone has updated the setting to 1920s Paris, a device that renews our expectations in this familiar piece, while echoing recent London and New York productions that have recast the play in different eras, such as 1920s Scotland or, in the case of Jeffrey Cohen's noted 2002 mounting, 1930s Manhattan. Jim Manning's cool black-and-white set is the epitome of style on a budget, hinting at French Provincial designwhich, appropriately enough, originated in the reign of Louis XIV in the mid-1600s, but also became a popular revival style in the France of the 1920s.
Mazzone throws in a little Charleston to go with a phonograph that (sometimes too loudly) cranks out lively pop tunes of the era. He usually hits the mark on all his blocking, and even when the acting falters, his cast clearly believes in the story and plays it apace. Originally written in five acts, the show here unfolds in but two, with an efficient running time of just over 2 hours, 15 minutes.
The director does take one arguable misstep. In the play's pivotal scene, Orgon's wife Elmire (Lauren Atkins) craftily invites the amorous overtures of the rascally Tartuffe (Jack E. Chambers), in order to expose his lecherous fraudulence to Orgon (John Devine), whom she bids to hide under a table. Atkins and Chambers work their tête-à-tête with ingratiating physicality, but their move to the other side of the stage steals the focus from Devine's slapstick blundering and bewilderment. This choice may have been influenced by the confines of the playing area and the need for the Elmire-Tartuffe pas de deux to take shape unencumbered. To the good, Atkins' energy buoys the action and salvages the laughs.
Both veteran actors, Chambers and Devine are well enough cast, and their performances help to reignite the controversy of which character's play this really is. Molière might have easily entitled his work Orgon, and it's a little bedeviling to ponder why the scoundrel of the piece got top billing. With all his unaware suspicions of the wrong people, his misguided kvetching and his wide-eyed semi-mugging, Devine's Orgon emerges as the focal point. While Chambers does his role justice, subtly evoking Tartuffe's scalawag pomposities, he's not as playfully comic as he might've been. This is flawed Molière, but it's still an enjoyable effort, with key performers and Mazzone's strong direction leading the way.
Last weekend, Southern Writers' Theater presented Poedelaire, an evening featuring the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire. Amid the elegant drawing-room setting of Belinda Leslie's Top of Woodland Bed and Breakfast, actors Tony Domenico and Michael Jumonville sipped tea and brandy as if in a French salon, exchanging admiring bon mots and reciting darkly evocative verse. While Domenico regaled the intimate crowd with Poe works such as "Annabel Lee" and "The Raven," Jumonville delivered bawdy Baudelaire in the poet/translator's original language, which had those who understood the French tittering knowingly. Susan Howe played a supporting role as hostess for the duo, while director Jaz Dorsey provided piano accompaniment.
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