Through June 15 at the Yale Summer Cabaret, 217 Park Street, New Haven. (203) 432-1566, www.yalecabaret.org.
Briskly played and cunningly trimmed to come in at well under two hours, the Summer Cabaret’s Tartuffe is more “Oof” than tart, getting as many laughs from pratfalls and saucy shenanigans as it does from Richard Wilbur’s rhymed-verse translation. I’ve never been a fan of Wilbur’s translation—it’s simply too precious, and creates deadly lulls in what should be a funny-or-die tone.
To their credit, Dustin Wills and the ensemble are prepared to do just about anything for a laugh. At the same time, they don’t fall into the trap that many other jolly Moliere shows have fallen into—you still need straightmen for the clowns to play off of. The young lovers Mariane (Celeste Arias) and Valere (Mitchell Winter) are exaggerated in their weeping despondency but not ridiculous. The scene where they fight about how much they love each other rings true.
Likewise, the wiser-than-the-master maid Dorine (Ashton Heyl) doesn’t rise to the level of a Scapin or a Servant of Two Masters, as she did (interestingly, but not entirely successfully) in David Kennedy’s production of Tartuffe at the Westport Country Playhouse two seasons back. Heyl plays Dorine not as spiteful and disrespectful but as genuinely shocked and concerned by how the house of Orgon has been turned upside down by the ruthless power-grabbings of the scoundrel Tartuffe.
The sucker Orgon is played by Chris Bannow—Associate Artistic Director of this summer season, who will need to abruptly switch gears in order to direct the next show up, Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Bannow avails himself of a bushy mustache and eyebrows to appear both intimidating and prosperous. It’s that balance of pomposity and vulnerability which must be maintained in Moliere’s plays. Too realistically mean, and no comeuppance is enough. Too stupid, and what’s the point? In Tartuffe, Moliere wrote a play which accesses real-life concerns about the powers of self-righteous religious figures. This isn’t pure farce, though the playwright did pull his punches (and save the show’s audiences from excommunication) by providing a big finish in which the benevolent and omniscient ruler of France makes everything right. This bit of rex ex machina stands at odds with what otherwise is valid social satire about greed, abuse of power, and classism in an ornate world which seeks spiritual succor.
As Tartuffe—who gets one of the biggest build-ups of any title role in theater history until Godot, having already caused turmoil at the outset of the play but not entering in the flesh until the beginning of Act Three—Mamoudou Athie wears a monk’s robe and basic wooden crucifix, but also packs several different artilleries of godliness and holier-than-thou-ness. Among these is a blistering gospel fervor he unleashes when he first starts to be backed into a corner by those less trusting of him than Orgon. Athie’s lean frame and intense stares give the character an intensity that transcends mere dastardliness. Having his conquest Elmire (Michelle McGregor) be so forthright (not fragile as in many other productions) causes sparks to fly.
This is an appropriately brisk and bracing production, geared for summer, with slamming doors and outthrust swords. But it’s also wise enough to know that it’s poking fun at social pretensions in general, not just parading a bunch of kooks around a stage.