Tartuffe: Insufferable ‘satire’ in DC at Shakespeare Theatre Company

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Sofia Jean Gomez gets her two cents in as Suzanne Warmanen looks on in Tartuffe. (courtesy)

Molière – the great French dramatist – maintained, “The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.” A keen observation, especially considering the 17th century backdrop in which he wrote. Yet, amusing is the antitheses of what happens in the current production of Molière’s cutting satire, Tartuffe – now playing at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Directed by Dominique Serrand with the subtlety of a sledgehammer-wielding sadist, Tartuffe is the story of the Rasputinesque holy man (Tartuffe), who beguiles Orgon, a man of some means.

Orgon has fallen under the pious fraud’s spell; signing over important private papers and pledging his daughter’s hand in marriage to Tartuffe. He is even oblivious to the hypocrite’s smarmy designs on Elmire – the lady of the house. As the dominoes fall, the soon-to-be disenfranchised family conspires to expose the so-called holy man – gathering evidence by hook or crook – all in true French farce fashion.

Suzanne Warmanen (center) gives advice to young lovers Lenne Klingaman and Christopher Carley. (courtesy)
Suzanne Warmanen (center) gives advice to young lovers Lenne Klingaman and Christopher Carley. (courtesy)

The set-up sounds enjoyable enough, and a quick look at the script reveals the genius of the playwright at tweaking the noses of both the religious establishment and the ruling class. Some of the classic lines include:

“Beauty without intelligence is like a hook without bait.”

“Malicious men may die, but malice never.”

“One easily bears moral reproof, but never mockery.”

So what went wrong?

For starters, Molière peppers much of Tartuffe with couplets which may ring in French but lose something when translated into English. It doesn’t help that director Serrand has opted to present this piece more as burlesque than biting social commentary. With gratuitous mugging, some very awkward slapstick and several actors shouting their lines, this production tramps the line between a junior high school effort and a Jerry Lewis movie.

Three minutes into Tartuffe, I knew this production was in trouble when the son (Damis) hiked up his nightshirt to moon his grandmother – Madame Pernelle.

Not all performances were so egregious. In fact, Gregory Linington, as Orgon’s brother-in-law Cleante, gave this writer hope that the shenanigans would be short-lived. Ditto Sofia Jean Gomez as Elmire. Both are solid actors who deserve far better.

Conversely, Leanne Klingman (as the daughter Mariane) and Suzanne Warmanen (as the meddling maid Dorine) seem to be in a race to decide who can be the most annoying actor on stage. A comedy such as this should be played broad – not bellowing. Simpering and shouting is no substitute for a purposeful delivery of well written lines, though in Warmanen’s defense, she is also saddled with several pages of the aforementioned artless couplets.

More screaming with Luverne Seifert and Suzanne Warmanen. (courtesy)
More mugging and screaming with Luverne Seifert and Suzanne Warmanen. (courtesy)

Michael Manuel’s turn as Madame Pernelle is somewhat reminiscent of a few moments with Maude Frickert. Brian Hostenske portrays Damis in all of his nightshirt-hiking glory (enough said). Luverne Seifert’s take on Orgon is stiff and a decidedly one note affair. And as Mariane’s young suitor, Valere, Christopher Carley bounces around the stage as if doing a commercial for air pocket insoles. Embarrassing.

Did I mention that Klingman also has cartoonish springs in her shoes?

As for Steven Epp, who is cast as the title character Tartuffe – who knows? Fifty minutes into this fiasco, with no end of act one in sight, this reviewer tired of waiting for Godot and opted to exit during one of the many pregnant pauses Serrand inserts for comic effect. Honestly, the idea of walking six blocks back to my car in a blinding thunderstorm seemed more palpable then spending one more minute with the cast of Tartuffe.

The sad thing about this show is one cannot help but feel that the actors are giving the director exactly what he wants. The result, unfortunately, is nothing short of inexcusable. Great comedy comes from the heart and is born of pain and suffering – much like the suffering I endured while watching this disaster.

On the creative side, don’t look for much from the set, as the actors chew up what little scenery adorns the stage.

Some may enjoy this production of Tartuffe – not unlike the way people savor staring at a bus accident. But as Hans Christian Andersen rightly observed – sometimes the emperor has no clothes.

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The Shakespeare Theatre Company put on some truly memorable productions this season (The Tempest, Man of La Mancha). Next season promises half a dozen more, with Salomé, 1984 and Taming of the Shrew to name a few. Season tickets for the exciting upcoming season may be purchased by visiting Shakespeare Theatre Company online.

Tartuffe runs now – July 5. For more information, visit the Tartuffe event page online.