“Pious, pompous, puffed up twits” beware: the Huntington Theatre Company’s TARTUFFE is a screamingly funny, jubilant debunking of fakery in all its forms! Moliere’s 17th century satire anticipated “the Enlightenment” as reason trumps religious pretense in this tale of a hypocritical holy man Tartuffe (actor/comedian Brett Gelman “Stranger Things”) who hoodwinks a gentleman and head of the house Orgon (Tony Winner Frank Wood). Orgon cannot see what everyone else in his upwardly mobile bourgeois household does, that Tartuffe’s saintliness masks a rapacious degenerate who has designs on Orgon’s wife Elmire (Melissa Miller), daughter Mariane (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) and his fortune. Moliere strips away the charlatan’s mask over the course of the play, laying bare the impostor and making Tartuffe the object of ridicule, entertaining and enlightening us in the process!
This is, indeed, bon Mots-liere with an accent on screwball physical comedy meticulously orchestrated by Peter Dubois. We are treated to an opulent set wrapped in pale diaphanous curtains where Louis XIV meets Mitchell Gold. Tartuffe makes a grand entrance from upstage, parading down an elegant staircase (perhaps foreshadowing his eventual descent) and crowing like a carnival barker in Rasputin’s clothing. Later he will guzzle red wine on an immaculate white chair, his bloody appetite a stain visible to all but the blind Orgon.
Whips and selfie sticks punctuate the action as this delightful cast romps through Ranjit Bolt’s frisky funny translation of Moliere’s rhymed couplets at warp speed. Bolt’s use of language here is a metaphor for Moliere’s themes: elaborate structure cloaking simple truth. And so “I flipped my lid” and “blew my top” are served up in “Alexandrine” hexameter– and we laugh at the absurdity of the contrast of style and substance even as we get the message loud and clear.
It must be noted that some actors do better than others at wielding the verse. Paula Plum as Orgon’s slow-on-the-uptake mother Madame Pernelle is hard to understand as she rushes her lines. Frank Wood’s delivery is strange and muffled as though he’s speaking underwater, perhaps his attempt to indicate that Orgon is in way over his head?!
But the rest are marvelous–especially Jane Pfitsch as the maid Dorine whose surefire delivery is as sharp as her diction as she sees through the con artist’s facade; Pfitsch owns the stage and every moment she’s on it. Brett Gelman is both funny and fearsome in his transparency, barely concealing his salivation over all that he covets; his Tartuffe towers over the rest of the cast, a bloated phony just begging to be pricked. Sarah Oakes Muirhead is a delightfully goofy and flexible ingenue as her Mariane contorts away from Tartuffe and collapses in the arms of her eager and dashing fiance Valere played with hilarious swagger by Gabriel Brown. Melissa Miller brings a daunting intelligence to Elmire, beautiful in scarlet as she manipulates the lecherous Tartuffe into a compromising position; though he manages to get a leg up, she ultimately has the upper hand.
I laughed out loud and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Moliere’s ending hits the spot in an increasingly Tartuffefied America, where seeing is NOT necessarily believing. I can only hope and recommend TARTUFFE at the Huntington Theatre through December 10!