Entertaining, Religious, Down-right Fascinating: Words to Define Tartuffe

Frank Wood and Brett Gelman in Tartuffe. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Amadeus Jones ’21 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Vibrant background hues, interesting costumes, passionate and energetic actors and actress perfectly sum up Tartuffe, presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. Director Peter DuBois, during his 10th season as an Artistic Director for the Company, now delivers to audiences a show originally written by Molière, a frenchman during the 17th century, adapted by Ranjit Bolt, a British playwright/translator in the 21st century, and now being analyzed by a critic from the good-old American South. Despite the many cultural translations, the results were amazing. This was a show packed to the brim with so much energy, as well as Molière’s signature witticism and clever satire present in his other works such as Don Juan and The Miser, that you can’t help but talk about this entertaining show filled with dramatic twists, potential adultery, and plenty of comedy.

Most of the actors and actresses present in this piece are quite energetic except for Frank Wood. You may recognize this man from such Broadway productions as August: Osage County, Born Yesterday, Hollywood Arms, and Side Man, for which he won a Tony and Drama League award for Best Featured Actor back in 1999. In this production, he plays Orgon who is married to Elmire (Melissa Miller) and possesses a vast amount of wealth to house them all in an exquisite dwelling. Orgon is also about as intelligent as a rock for the first part of the show, during which he welcomes in a deceitful and religious fraud named Tartuffe (Brett Gelman). Orgon almost allows Tartuffe to steal his daughter’s already engaged hand and legally take away all of his wealth and estate.

For a man thrust into such a tumultuous questioning of faith and near loss of his family’s trust, you would think the actor playing Orgon would have to be quite expressive with his variety of emotions. Unfortunately for Mr. Wood, his delivery was about as stiff as his last name. Mr. Wood seemed to constantly make random yet brief pauses in between his lines, in addition to a constant varying of pace which made his inflections very difficult and confusing to read at times. His physical motions also seemed to be more directed than natural. While his performance did get progressively better, the majority of his time on stage produced a rather awkward atmosphere around a character that should be one of the most emotionally expressive in Tartuffe.

While you have already been given an earful about Frank Wood’s performance, it seems that the rest of the cast deserves some time as well. The cast overall was very energetic. Since the set in relatively huge, you need to have actors that can fill the space with their stage presence. These actors and actresses do this to a phenomenal degree. There was hardly ever a moment when I became distracted because the performers weren’t holding my attention. There was always movement going on and dialogue being thrown around––it was almost always completely natural. The three thespians that seemed to capture the most attention were Brett Gelman as the crafty Tartuffe, Jane Pfitsch as the argumentative family maid Dorine, and Matthew J. Harris as Elmire’s logical brother Cleante. Whenever these actors and actress were onstage, they lorded over the space with their refined articulation, appropriate volume, and flowing surplus of energy delivered in each and every line.

The Cast of Tartuffe. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Tartuffe was originally written by french playwright Molière who sought to expose the hypocritical nature of many “religious zealots” present in the 1600s. The text was translated by Ranjit Bolt for this production, and overall, Mr. Bolt seems to have done a very fine job with it. The lines are comprehensible, as are the themes associated with them. However, it’s the cultural context that is translated over which presents some minor confusion especially during the show’s conclusion. Throughout the entire production, I was never aware of the fact that these characters were living in France until the very end of the show when an Officer of the Court (Omar Robinson) talks about Orgon’s relation to the King, and everybody begins to use the word “monsieur” very prominently. Neither the costumes (which were still immaculate), nor the setting ever seemed to indicate that they were in France. In fact, most if not all of the cast had American––sometimes Southern accents––that really threw off where they actually were.

I would like to profess my deepest thanks to Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge, Costume Designer Anita Yavich, and Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind for keeping my eyes on the absolutely beautiful look of the stage throughout the entire show. The set was gorgeously laid out without being too crowded, and consisted primarily of the colors white, gold, and grey to emphasize the amount of wealth Orgon possessed. Looking at it, combined with the artificial railing gazing out at the skyline, made me experience both a sense of relaxation and awe. The costumes were wonderfully done, consisting of so many various and vibrant colors that an audience member could pick out which character they were looking at from at least a mile away. The lighting was also subtly detailed. This was most apparent not during the changes in scenes when various distinct colors would flood the stage with their luminosity, but rather during the scenes where relatively minor aspects, like the sun rising, were present. I remember sitting in my balcony seat, looking out at the stage, and noticing the very subtle changes of various yellow, orange, and red hues being combined to form a beautiful sunrise offstage. When you put all of these different technical facets together, they form a kind of delicious cake ready to be devoured by the audience’s eyes with the set being the more solid yet graceful dough, the costumes being the ravishing icing accentuating the cake it goes over, and the lighting being the sprinkles dazzling on top of everything else.

Sure this show has some flaws, no show is without them. Not all the performers are fantastic and not all of the writing is appropriate. Some of the lines are a bit awkward and some of the technical effects don’t hold up all the way. Despite this, for every awkward line delivered, there are about more with perfect timing to follow it. For every less than satisfactory technical aspect, there are three more creating a savory and beautiful picture around it. Bottom line, Tartuffe is no masterpiece, but it comes pretty darn close in some areas. If you don’t like discussions on corrupted religious figures involved with theft and adultery, this is not the show for you. However, if you are a fan of quick jokes, great acting, and beautiful scenery, this is a show to definitely miss church for.

Brett Gelman in Tartuffe. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
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