Saturday, July 21, 2018
Stage

Review: Election-themed 'Tartuffe' adaptation is imperfect but much needed

ST. PETERSBURG

It's safe to say that expectations ran high for the opening weekend of Tartuffe, the 17th century Moliere farce adapted by American Stage. Not only had the theater commissioned Robert Caisley, an accomplished playwright and academic, to modernize the play, the theater had done so with a special instruction: Make Moliere's takedown of religious hypocrisy correlate with the presidential election.

That kind of buildup, coupled with the promise that the adaptation was not to be a political screed slanted left or right, breaks the ceiling of hope. Would this play somehow frame our current political conflicts on a scale matching Moliere's day, in which an emerging science competed against the Catholic church for ownership of the truth?

If you come with expectations like that, you will be disappointed. Tartuffe is not an updated Enlightenment treatise. Most of the political references are playful, as deep as Tic Tacs, and most of the parallels in it are the ones audiences construct in their own minds.

So, a recommendation. Instead of imagining and expecting, celebrate the fact that American Stage has served up a fresh take on heated passions of all sorts with humor and originality. It's more Saturday Night Live than Fareed Zakaria, but like the comedy show it sneaks in cultural observations that skewer everyone. Sure, political references probably tilt one way more than the other given that its arch hypocrite is a political candidate whose logo is an American flag emblazoned with the letter T. But as its creators have said, this treatment directed by Brendan Ragan is a lot more complicated than "One person is Trump and another person is Hillary."

The first thing that hits you is the set by Jerid Fox, a nouveau riche McMansion with neon light rails for parties and an actual swimming pool. Orgon, a wealthy businessman and consummate fool, lives here with his glamorous wife, Mira, and other family members who stream in and out. A brother-in-law, Clayton, preaches left-wing politics, and daughter Maryann ignores them all in favor of her phone.

As in Moliere's original, Orgon has been smitten by Tartuffe, a homeless man whose piety in church impressed him. Ned Averill-Snell deserves kudos for literally going all-in as Orgon, a straight man who delivers the show's funniest lines. Kelly Pekar is very strong as Mira, who must pretend to seduce Tartuffe before he bankrupts the whole family. Jan Neuberger sets a high bar in the opening scene as Pernelle, Orgon's mother, who also reveres Tartuffe.

But the axle on which this cast turns is Ricky Wayne as Tartuffe, a So-Cal con artist who says as much with his pose-striking posture and physical comedy as the lines he delivers. So you already have a plot that has endured 350 years and enough acting chops to go around. To this cocktail American Stage has added not a hipper, slicker version, but age old themes seen through the lens of current events. Some hints can't be missed, like Tartuffe calling Mira a "nasty woman" after getting caught with his pants down. Some are contained in props, a Jesus portrait matching the one on Tartuffe's bathrobe or an elephant float in the pool.

Some are built into the Moliere's play, such as litigation as a tool to silence critics or the notion that more information does not equal more truth.

There are a few problems, some fixable and others knowingly adopted. Examples of the latter include Orgon trying to forcefully hand over his daughter to Tartuffe in marriage, which might feel a little hard to believe. But it's a central plot element and Caisley kept it, just as he retained snatches of Moliere's exquisite phrasing and sprinkled a few of his own rhyming couplets.

Part of the first act slows down a bit with digression and exposition. A joke about Orgon destroying his Blackberry with a hammer over hacked emails seemed hurried and rushed over, a wasted opportunity on opening night, the day the FBI reopened its email investigation.

Those nits and others could be summed up in two words: So what?

This community has not seen anything this original or ambitious in a long time. It's funny (the sitcom moments included) and smart, and was essentially created out of whole cloth. Not only does the Tampa Bay area need this adaptation of Tartuffe, we've been starving for it.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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