Court Theatre’s “Tartuffe” Brings out the Best in Moliere
Reviewed by: Melody Udell
On the heels of the highly regarded production of “The Misanthrope,” the Court Theatre rounds out its 2013 Moliere Festival with an energetic, stylized version of “Tartuffe.”
Director Charles Newell has adapted the 17th-century play, somewhat, to modern-day Chicago. Now set in the tastefully decorated living room (lushly designed by John Culbert) of a wealthy Hyde Park family, the crux of the story still revolves around a deluded head of household and his scheming comrade — a set-up that is at times both hilarious and appalling. But Newell’s production brings a little added zing. It’s a fresher, more physical take on Moliere’s classic satire, even though the themes themselves hardly need help transcending to a more contemporary audience.
Many of the cast members also starred in ‘The Misanthrope,” which Newell cast deliberately to bend the Caucasian racial boundaries often pigeonholed within the Moliere repertoire. A.C. Smith plays Orgon, a frustratingly oblivious family patriarch. When we meet him, the once-venerable family man is smitten with his newest pal, Tartuffe (Philip Earl Johnson), who has plied his way into the family’s core with heavy-hitting piety and false modesty.
Orgon so highly values Tartuffe, he arranges a marriage between his beloved new friend and his daughter, Mariane (Grace Gealey), who is in love with the simple-hearted Valere (Travis Turner). Mariane, like the rest of the family, sees through Tartuffe’s slick-talking false evangelism, but it’s her maid, Darine (Elizabeth Ledo), who has the courage to speak the truth. Ledo is a true highlight in a show already brimming with sharp comedy and just the right amount of slapstick. Her Darine is a sassy Eastern European with plenty of well-voiced opinions, and she’s easily the funniest actor on the stage.
Tartuffe, becoming more deplorable in each scene, may be cruelly engaged to Mariane, but he pines for Orgon’s beautiful young wife, Elmire (played by the saucy Patrese D. McClain). After conniving to become Orgon’s sole heir — thus disinheriting Orgon’s son, Damis (Dominique Worsley) — Tartuffe the imposter has rather easily dethroned the family patriarch and left the rest of the family in a shambles.
Thanks to a few interesting choices, “Tartuffe” is brimming with visual appeal. Consistency seems cast aside when it comes to Jacqueline Firkins’ costume design. Sensible suits and an unremarkable maid’s uniform are worn alongside quirky, nerdy-chic outifts — Mariane looked more like a Betsy Johnson model than an elite Hyde Park daughter. But the decision to cast the role of Orgon’s mother (Allen Gilmore) as man in drag was a funny touch, turning a rigid, potentially unused character into a more likeable comedic vehicle.
While Newell may have updated the details a bit — even adding in “Obama” into Moliere’s rhyming verse — the production is a sound look at how easily a desperate trickster with a flair for the verbose can con even the most reasonable person. Although these days, the endings to these stories don’t come quite so neatly packaged.
“Tartuffe” runs through Sunday, July 14 at the Court Theatre (5535 S. Ellis Avenue) on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45-$65 and are available online or by phone at 773-753-4472. For calendar information please visit www.TheatreInChicago.com