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Tartuffe Goes to Washington

Updating Moliere is trickier than it looks.

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Tartuffe

Remy Bumppo Theatre Company

The Misanthrope

S.O.T. Theater Company

Moliere updates can be something of an uphill struggle. The sensual charms of a rococo period staging are simply a lot of what his works have going for them. And if just getting a handle on their complicated historical context is daunting, fitting the plays to another is far trickier. Take the case of Tartuffe, in which a "holy" con man wreaks havoc on the household of a credulous man of wealth, Orgon. Not surprisingly, this satire on religious hypocrisy is often reset in modern times, but the story is specific to 1660s France, and it's hard to imagine a time and place more gripped by religious intrigue, or more poised for agnostic reaction.

Roughly midway between Reformation and Revolution, late mid-17th-century France was still subject to clerical entrenchment and corruption. And like most of the nation-states emerging on the continent, France had been battered by ecumenical conflict for almost 100 years. The Wars of Religion of the late 1500s, played out on French soil, had extinguished one royal line, and its aftershocks nearly nipped another in the bud. The Thirty Years' War--which decimated a fifth of the German population--had only recently ground to a halt. In Spain the Inquisition continued apace. It was a time when atrocities committed in the name of religion could scarcely be numbered.

Moliere insisted that Tartuffe was an attack not on any church or religion but on the falsely devout. He was assisted in this stance by his patron, Louis XIV, whose absolute rule pretty much spelled the end of attempted power grabs by contentious nobility and headstrong clergy. Moliere deliberately communicates the brute force of the monarchy with Tartuffe's famous "deus rex machina." At play's end, only the intervention of the king can save Orgon, his wife, and their children from ruin at the hands of hypocritical religion as represented by the villainous guru Tartuffe.

In its production of Ranjit Bolt's translation, directed by James Bohnen, Remy Bumppo transplants the action to the home of a wealthy present-day Beltway player, and while the poisoning of the body politic by toxic religiosity rings all too true, Americans can't really anticipate anything like the play's happy ending. Though our executive branch is undeniably enthusiastic about untrammeled power, it's also unapologetically devoted to the sort of cynical evangelical agenda Tartuffe pursues. And half our population is still raring to go when it comes to religious wars here and abroad.

Still, Bolt's translation is a sturdy, snappy, savvy one. And this production, with its ominous, collagelike depiction of Ronald Reagan looming from a wall-mounted canvas, arguably makes use of the dissonance produced by the tidy wrap-up as a superb Brechtian effect. Though the material is often dangerously dark, Bohnen maintains the brisk pace and slippery, proto-absurdist lightness needed to prevent the play from decaying into a mordant rant. And the cast strikes a wonderful balance between the artifice of the rhyming couplets and convincing contemporary deliveries. Among the standouts are Margaret Kusterman, whose Barbara Bush-like turn as Orgon's mother, the tart-tongued clan matriarch, opens the evening with a bang; Linda Gillum, a marvel of comic acrobatics and mannered aplomb as Orgon's put-upon spouse, Elmire; and Patrick Clear, deliciously clueless and likable as her stooge of a husband. But Nick Sandys steals the show with his reptilian, deep-southern-drawl portrayal of Tartuffe, the most charismatic asshole this side of Richard III.

An update of The Misanthrope, on the other hand, shouldn't have been such a trick for the S.O.T. Theater Company to pull off. Its lead character, Alceste, is the Larry David of the 17th century--an awkward prick so annoying he's ridiculous. The only real hurdle involved in negotiating Moliere's fairly abstract critique of hypocrisy's excessively idealistic opposite--regardless of setting--is remembering that, for all the play's seriousness and truth, it's supposed to be a comedy. Moliere's own first, frustrated desire was to be a tragic actor, and the guy playing sad-sack Alceste must know--like Moliere, who first played the part himself--what the character doesn't: that the man's humorlessness and contrariness are so profound they're hilarious.

Unfortunately that's a note Robin Trevino as Alceste hits infrequently. Neither urbane screwball nor over-the-top clown, Trevino hovers at a distressingly literal level, and his ingenuous petulance sucks the humor right out of the piece. Enough of the rest of the cast plays the script straight that I suspect director John McCarthy is to blame. Only Lauren Heitzinger as the coquette Celimene and Mathias Maloff in two minor roles have as much fun as they should. But as this is a young company, holding its bare-bones production to too high a standard would be unfair--and, given the play's subject, a little ironic.

Tartuffe

When: Through 3/5: Wed-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM

Where: Victory Gardens Theater, second-floor main stage, 2257 N. Lincoln

Price: $27.50-$38.50

Info: 773-871-3000

The Misanthrope

When: Through 2/12: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri-Sat 8 PM

Where: Breadline Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice

Price: $10

Info: 773-472-1501

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Deone Jahnke.

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