Arts » Performing Arts

Davidson's Tartuffe fit for a Sun King



New rule: if the Davidson College Theatre Department produces a comedy by Moliere, be sure to head up I-77 and see it. Doesn't matter who directs or where on campus it is staged. They did Scapin nearly two years ago in a recital hall at the Music Center, directed by former CL Theaterperson of the Year Scott Ripley, that was wildly bizarre and screamingly funny. I caught that one early and raved, but with all the Charlotte action going on during its opening week, I waited to catch Tartuffe until nearly the end of its run.

Directed by the diminutive Ann Marie Costa at spacious Duke Family Performance Hall, this Moliere was equally worthy of worship -- and nearly as startling in its transformation. The thrust of Costa's modern-dress concept remained hidden in plain view until the very last French scene. Instead of 17th Century Paris, where Moliere struggled against the Catholic Church to get his great satire produced at the court of Louis XIV, we were now clearly in present-day DC. Thirteen stars rose vertically to the top of the proscenium at each wing of the stage, and the Capitol dome loomed enormously upstage, blotting out a hefty hunk of the sky.

It was out of the sky that Costa sprang her big surprise. When the patron saint of hypocrites has not only duped the credulous Orgon but also swindled him out of all his money, when a policeman is on the point of evicting Orgon from his home and handing the keys over to Tartuffe, Moliere has an officer of the royal court declare that the prince has seen through the fraudulent holy man's double dealings. The contract between signed by Orgon surrendering his possessions is voided, the incriminating documents compromising Orgon's patriotism are pardoned, and Tartuffe -- instead of Orgon -- is placed under arrest.

At Davidson, the deus ex machina was far more absurd. From above the proscenium Lori Pitts was slowly lowered to the ground, as if arriving miraculously by helicopter. Extracted from her harness, the lady in the flack jacket turned out to be America's black Secretary of State, dispatched from the White House by a President who sees all, knows all, and can decree justice -- even if it means voiding a legal document and bulldozing due process along the way.

Moliere's exaggerated deference to his king turned out to be as pertinent for the 21st Century USA. You could take Costa alterations as a salvo against Christian conservative wackos who believe their leaders are divinely ordained. Or you could see the same barb aimed at Obama-maniacs, who believe that his transformative powers transcend the constraints of Constitutional checks and balances. Orgon's blind trust and theirs isn't very different.

Zack Byrd as Orgon was so enthusiastically blind that you had to love his earnest stupidity, and Ian Bond as Tartuffe had the polished conceit of a truly accomplished freeloader. Maret Decker Seitz also had her superb moments, deftly navigating the cross-purposes of Elmire, Orgon's wife, as she attempted to enlighten her husband by brazenly seducing the fraudulent cleric. Jenny Estill had just the right take on Dorine, keeping the housemaid comical while torturing half the household with her piercing common sense and bulldog tenacity.

Really, there weren't any serious nits to pick in any of performances, but I did miss the wit of the couplets in Richard Wilbur's version of script, exchanged for that of translator du jour Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Art, God of Carnage). My only other quibble was the playbill, which offered the names of the characters without providing their relationships with each other. Confusing when these names don't occur in dialogue with soap opera frequency.

Otherwise, this Tartuffe was truly fit for a Sun King. Not so welcome for clergy.

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