A young couple, forced to part, goes through mutual recriminations, put right by a knowing maidservant: “Give me your hands.” At the protest, “I don’t see much point in it,” she replies, “There hasn’t been much point in the past five minutes. Remember you’re in love.” And they do.
There’s a lot of point to any few minutes of Moliere’s masterpiece, Tartuffe, but also much pure comedy and many transparent, purely theatrical vignettes like this moment of breathing space in a dense theatrical outpouring that can go from archly humorous delicacy to rough-and-tumble slapstick in a second. Sherri Young, founder of the African-American Shakespeare (and newly appointed to San Francisco’s Arts Commission) nicely directs her cast in Charles Edward Pogue’s choice new translation of the classic that played the court of the Sun King.
“A less than pious con man bamboozles a well-to-do gentleman out of his fortune and his family.” Pogue’s script, besides filling that satiric bill, also brings in dark social circumstances in the background the necessarily discrete original only hinted at. “In these late civil troubles, I lost myself and my way,” apologizes Orgon, the duped gentleman, to his wife. “With countrymen and friends turning on each other, even the king went a little mad, and in the aftermath I felt a madness of my own.” And so turned to the con man, posing as holy, for religious solice.
Orgon, played as something of a vain huggy-bear of a husband and father, trying to assert a passive-aggressive authority through his infatuation with the phony preacher Tartuffe, is presented well by Abbie Rhone, an old trouper, who tries to navigate around his unbelieving family—unbelieving in Tartuffe and in Orgon’s puffed-up discipleship. In Nicole Brewer’s Elmire, a lady of both gravity and passion, he’s more than met his match—as has Tartuffe—in the uproarious scene of a false seduction that almost backfires. “Prepare for ecstacy, Madame!” cries the monkish rake, while Orgon cringes in self-disgust under the parlor table.
There are about a dozen players on stage, and all acquit themselves well, following the lead of the script in combining well-to-do airs with domestic tantrums. Of all in the household, the quick-tongued maidservant, Dorine, as played by Belinda Sullivan (whose voice is familiar from Larry Reed’s ShadowLight shows), strikes just the right note, truly Moliere, in light of America, and can whine, yell, or do a slow burn.
That “Bible-thumping blackguard,” as Orgon’s son, Damis (a rambunctious Keita Jones) puts it, sad-eyed but grinning Vernon Medearis as Tartuffe, in clerical collar and tunic with crucifix, whether ordering Dorine to clean his flagellator or endeavoring to clean Orgon’s clock, does it with lewd deliciousness (“a delightfully deviant performance”), whether in tears and groveling on the floor, or crooning spirituals, as if to himself.
The supporting players do well, too—even a small, but crucial role, Monsieur Loyal, the bailiff, is deftly handled with sly humor by Federico Edwards, unctious snapping open his frockcoat to serve a writ.
Ari Fulton’s costumes are both sumptuous and straightforward, matching Paul Riley’s drawing room set.
“The snake fancies my lady,” Dorine says, aside, after Tartuffe has employed his handkerchief to “conceal that heaving bosom of yours!” The hypocrite casts his net of reverse psychology wide, but can’t conceal his own depravity, in the end only using it as pious confession on the rebound. “Rhythmically comic”—and completely theatrical! Everything a pretense, a performance with an audience in mind, onstage or off—“a sin is only a sin when it’s known”—and Tartuffe’s impersonation of piety drives Elmire to duplicity, too, staging the fake seduction for a private viewing. As Dorine exclaims, “Ma-DAM !”
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 3 at the and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco.