By MoliereTartuffe Organic Theater Chicago

Translated by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Alexander Gelman

Produced by Organic Theater Company, Chicago

Tartuffe Struggles to Find Its Style

Tartuffe, Moliere’s classic tale of hypocrisy and duplicity, is perennially popular, but hard to get right. The rhyming couplets, absurd behavior, and infamous deus ex machina ending all suggest a high-energy unreality, but the titular character must still be dangerous. In their new production under director Alexander Gelman, which runs in repertory with Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Organic Theatre Company has a rough time balancing the exaggerated emotions with high stakes. The result is still Tartuffe, but not at the level of a professional production.

Bryan James Wakefield, Anthony Perrella, Jr., and Colin Jackson. All photos by Nico Fernandez.
Bryan James Wakefield, Anthony Perrella, Jr., and Colin Jackson. All photos by Nico Fernandez.

One of the first warning signs of that is the design. Moliere was writing for the most famously extravagant palace in western history, and it is hard to picture his style without periwigs, full-face make-up, and acres of silk and velvet in a baroque setting. There have been modern-dress performances of Tartuffe, but even those have to provide him with something to steal, some status in Orgon’s family to parasitize. The set in Organic’s production is just a blank stage, with some annoyingly loud metal bead curtains in back. The characters are dressed in (sometimes ill-fitting) clothes suited to their type: a professorial tweed jacket with leather patches for Orgon’s brother-in-law Cleante, punk guyliner for brash, rebellious son Damis (Colin Jackson). I wonder if the low or forced energy in this production was due to its uninspiring visuals.

The story goes that Tartuffe (Anthony Perrella, Jr.), a seemingly deeply religious Christian, has befriended Orgon (Bryan James Wakefield), a very rich man, and is wasting the man’s money while still pretending to be meek and humble, and providing his master with spiritual mentorship. To the rest of Orgon’s family except his mother (Rosalind Hurwitz), Tartuffe’s fraudulence is blatantly obvious, but Orgon refuses to see the truth, and ignores the suffering of his own family. In fact, he intends to marry Tartuffe to his daughter, Mariane, (Amy Powell), even though she is already engaged to Valere (Will Burdin). This cruel act is contrary even to Tartuffe’s intentions, since he covets Orgon’s wife, Elmire (Amanda Jane Long), and knows Orgon is too deep in denial to heed his wife’s complaints. Only through trickery can Tartuffe be exposed, but even then, the wicked man still has one secret advantage his victims cannot possible overcome.

Tartuffe Organic Theater
Bryan James Wakefield, Amy Powell, and Kerry Perrella

Due to an enormous controversy over Tartuffe’s original performance, the text went through many revisions, and Moliere prefaced the surviving version by saying he had taken two whole acts to prepare the audience for Tartuffe’s arrival. Under Gelman’s direction, these two acts go very slowly. Most of the actors deliver their couplets with rigid cadence. The play gets much more interesting when Tartuffe finally shows up. Perrella plays him as Rasputin, which isn’t exactly a contemporary reference, or one that matches most modern peoples’ expectation of piety, but is something he does well. His performance is muted, and too slimy to be buffoonish. Unfortunately, almost everybody else still is pushing themselves to be loud and dumb, which is a clash that makes their reactions to Tartuffe feel disconnected.

Tartuffe Organic Theater
Anthony Perrella, Jr. and Bryan James Wakefield

Gelman also tried to set up some sight-gags and slap-stick that don’t mesh with what Perrella is doing, and other members of the cast don’t have the timing or commitment for. I should point out that Long is a sensible Elmire, and her scene with Perrella is the only time I got a sense for how damaging Tartuffe really is, and cared about his being foiled. But once his plan to expose Orgon’s fraternizing with the losing side of a civil war went into motion, it became apparent that modernizing Tartuffe requires more than just not allotting budget for costumes. Maybe if the adaptation wasn’t entirely in the design, there would be more unity the style of acting. Still, Tartuffe is a showcase of the best in old-fashioned comedies, and Organic’s production has its moments.

Somewhat Recommended

Jacob Davis
[email protected]

Reviewed May 19, 2015

For more information, see Tartuffe’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $16-20; to order, call 773-404-7336. Performances are May 23 and 30 at 2:30 and 7:30 pm, May 31 at 2:30 pm, June 3-5 at 7:30 pm, June 13 at 2:30 and 7:30 pm, June 14 at 2:30 pm, June 17-19 at 7:30 pm, June 27 at 2:30 and 7:30 pm, and June 28 at 2:30 pm. Running time is two hours with one intermission.