Translated by Richard Wilbur
Directed by Charles Newell
Produced by Court Theatre
In 1965, Daniel Moynihan—then working as an Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson Administration—released his seminal study on growing economic inequality among America’s black population entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. In it, Moynihan insisted that high non-marital birthrates among blacks created matriarchal societies which undermined the familial importance of black men. And this diminished authority, Moynihan contended, led black men to abdicate their responsibilities as husbands, fathers and providers, thus repeating the cycle of poverty for ensuing generations. The Moynihan Report—as it was widely known thereafter—remains one of the most contentious theses in all the social sciences, generating controversy in its day as well as our own.
But regardless of what one thinks about the Moynihan Report’s controversial assertion, its legacy lingers on. As an example, one might turn to Court Theatre’s current production of Tartuffe (the final production in its 2013 Molière Festival), featuring A.C. Smith as a black Orgon who all too readily cedes his responsibilities as husband, father and provider to the white religious charlatan Tartuffe (played with menacing relish by Philip Earl Johnson). Thus director Charles Newell uses Molière’s classic play on religious hypocrisy—controversial in its own time—as a starting point from which to examine anxieties surrounding the assault on and disintegration of the black American family.
Indeed, and to Newell’s credit, the scenes from Molière’s classic 1664 comedy look as though they may be ripped rather from today’s headlines. Set in Chicago’s highly affluent Hyde Park/Kenwood neighborhood, there is something terrifyingly relevant about the evangelist Tartuffe’s efforts to dispossess Orgon of his property, ensnare his daughter in abject bondage, and ultimately cuckold Orgon before finally sending him off to be incarcerated for crimes against the state. The racial undertones of Newell’s production, featuring a black man threatened with prison, leaving his wife and two children to fend for themselves, is a narrative sadly all too familiar to modern American audiences.
But equally to its credit, Newell’s production rarely sacrifices the robust humor of Richard Wilbur’s eminently fresh translation to any tacit social commentary. And this production benefits greatly from a slew of uproarious performances from a talented cast of Equity performers. Elizabeth Ledo as the lady’s-maid Dorine gets incredible mileage from a brash Latina accent, comedically well-suited to punctuate Wilbur’s iambic verse with a sassy marcato percussiveness. And Patrese D. McClain as Orgon’s exasperated young wife Elmire, for all her obvious glamour, isn’t afraid to assume an indecorous pose or two in fighting off the slimy Tartuffe’s sexual advances, evincing an actress whose comedic range is appreciatively proportionate to her physical loveliness.
Philip Earl Johnson’s Tartuffe—dressed in an ‘oh-so-ironic’ collarless button-up with his white hair held back in a ponytail—is more a San Fran-hipster cynic than the tongue-speaking, snake-handling televangelist we’ve come to expect. And while some may object to this less rigidly caricatured interpretation of Tartuffe, there’s nonetheless something refreshing in Johnson’s efforts to imbue Tartuffe’s psyche with something menacingly real. Besides, as even Richard Wilbur was willing to admit, the issue of Tartuffe’s religious hypocrisy has always been something of a red herring. Even more than a Jerry Falwell or a Ted Haggard, Tartuffe is essentially a faithless grifter, willing to quickly shuffle off his feigned religiosity when the moment suits him. Johnson’s portrait is thus fittingly that of a man who can barely be bothered to keep up pious appearances, born undoubtedly of his callous contempt for the gullible mark, Orgon.
Still, despite its edgy social undertones and appreciably strong cast, Newell’s production falls short of expectations in certain areas. Most noticeably, the comedic pacing isn’t consistent, and as Orgon’s family becomes increasingly threatened with total catastrophe, Newell’s effort to imbue the play with the sense of ominous tragedy succeeds only in hobbling its otherwise forward-leaning momentum. Plus Molière’s use of a deus ex machina to resolve the dramatic problem (perhaps more relevant in the age of the Sun King) is hard to translate to modern audiences. The best thing one can do is to breeze through it with a comedic flourish, but Newell’s production slogs so slowly through the play’s last few moments that it only heightens our sense of anti-climax.
Also, Jacqueline Firkin’s costumes, while impeccably constructed, are somewhat gaudy in their nouveau riche extremity. For example, the lovely and talented Grace Gealey as Orgon’s daughter Mariane, here dressed in a lace pink tutu and heels bedecked with obtrusive bows, looks like the infantilized love child of Nicole Richie and Minnie Mouse. Ditto for Elmire’s shimmering gold dress with its Grecian lines, more evocative of the preening Real Housewives of Orange County than a Chicago housewife, Kenwood or otherwise. And set designer John Culbert’s autumnal-colored living room, with its mass-produced Target-brand pictures frames and assorted knick-knacks suggests a family overly self-indulgent in the trappings of an excessive consumerism. In short, as beautifully realized as the production design is, its opulence is nonetheless misplaced amongst a family whose chief claim to virtue is an insistence upon common sense, moderation, and a staunch refusal to be taken in by the lure of artful appearances.
Still, despite all that, Court Theatre’s Tartuffe remains an impressively realized tour de force. Going well beyond the need to show how the controversies of Molière’s era are still with us, Newell’s production reinvests this centuries-old text with the more pressing controversies of our own age. And those willing to look more deeply at the subtle racial politics unfolding onstage at Court will be graciously rewarded—not with phony, ready-made solutions, but rather with the sort of achingly ambiguous questions only the best of theater can dare ask.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Friday, June 28th, 2013.
Tartuffe runs until July 14th, 2013. Court Theatre is located at 5535 S. Ellis Avenue. For tickets call (773) 753-4472. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/tartuffe/5479/.