Pointed comedy, physical acting make Tartuffe entrancing
Like Shakespeare, Moliere knew how to tickle his audiences with wicked satire, physical comedy and absurd situations. While he may not be as quotable, his characters are as memorable and the plots as rollicking. It is, perhaps, why it makes sense for Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company to take on the classic French comedy of “Tartuffe.”
In producing this new translation of a play originally written in 12-syllable, rhyming couplets, Pigeon Creek chooses to follow the same original practices that they do with their Shakespeare productions. There is universal lighting, actors interact with the audience, sets are simple, casting is cross-gendered and actors double up in roles. In this play, the latter is limited to Megan Prangle, a newcomer to the company who plays a maid, process server and a royal officer. They also continue to busk before the show and at intermission with modern musical numbers accompanied by acoustic instruments. Their song choices were brilliantly appropriate to the show’s themes, starting with Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise.”
The entire ensemble tackles this French classic work with the same ease and familiarity that they do their Shakespeare productions. They embrace the physicality, show great comfort with the language, and wring the most out of the inherent comedy of the text. They are fully committed to their roles and to the story they are telling. Even in a moment where the humor overtook them and two actors broke, letting laughter get the better of them, they manage to sell the amusement as part of the story.
Pigeon Creek regular Scott Lange takes on the role of Tartuffe, a supposedly pious man. He makes a late appearance on stage as the audience first learns everyone’s opinion of him. The master of the house, Orgon, played by Kyle Westmaas, and his mother, Madame Pernelle, played by Kate Tubbs, adore him and hold him up as the paragon of virtue and a man whose every word should be cherished and every direction followed. The rest of the family despises him as a hypocrite and a falsely pious man who has taken over their home and condemned their way of life.
Katherine Mayberry eats up the plum role of Dorine, maid to the daughter of the house. Her sassiness speaks truth to hypocrisy and shows no tolerance for the affectations of the day or the foolishness of her supposed betters. She is bawdy and frank, making much use of a feather duster and her highly expressive face.
Westmaas makes a delightfully single-minded Orgon, who is unswerving in his convictions, whether righteous or flawed. He swings from one extreme to the other, and haughtily discards those who disagree with him. Westmaas shows great generosity as an actor to all those he appears on stage with, giving them plenty to work with and react to. He shows frustration with Mayberry, thinly veiled contempt for his brother-in-law Sarah Stark’s Cleante, and abject devotion to Lange’s Tartuffe.
When Lange does take the stage, he quickly shows us why Tartuffe has gotten such mixed and extreme reactions from the family. He plays Orgon like a master puppeteer while revealing his hypocrisy to the audience in a myriad of fashions.
The entire ensemble works closely to make this performance a strong one. Kat Hermes’ Marianne simpers as the doe-eyed ingenue, Stark’s Cleante posits wisely if a bit pretentiously as the character demands, and Kathleen Bode’s Elmire alternates between elegant sophistication and wide-mouthed offense. Brad Sytsma’s Damis, Orgon’s son, is a bit one-note, but this translation gives him little but anger and impulsiveness to work with. Killian Goodson’s Valere plays Romeo to Hermes’ Juliet and is as foolish and devout a lover. Kate Tubbs lacks some of the strong presence of Madame Pernelle, the self-righteous mother of Orgon, but is carried well by those who react to her biting criticisms.
Rosalind Srb commands two important roles in this production, though she is never seen. The script is her translation of the 1664 comedy, and she was in charge of the elaborate period costumes and wigs. Her translation is very accessible, keeping in many of the rhymes and rhythm. She leaves out Laurent, the non-speaking servant of Tartuffe, and arranges the play so it fits the cast of the Pigeon Creek ensemble. The result is a production that works very well for the space, the talent and the style of this group.
Everything about this production is designed to entertain and amuse the audience. It is high comedy, and no one in the audience was immune to the invitation to laugh aloud throughout the evening. There are no dull moments nor any struggle to understand the plot, language nor the stakes involved for all of the characters. “Tartuffe” is a fun show that clearly demonstrates why this play has survived for nearly 400 years.