Molière passes the test of time in Tartuffe: Unplugged
Chico State Director William Johnson refers to his adventuresome and ambitious production of Molière’s Tartuffe as “Tartuffe Unplugged.” This goes back to the notion that Molière, before he became famous, took his acting company to the French “sticks,” where there were no fancy stages, no powdered wigs, no elegant costumes, no Louis-the-14th interiors and furnishings, not even programs. It was in such venues that Molière and his company learned how to create space through bodily movement (perhaps from commedia dell’arte players) and how to make philosophical discussion physically and emotionally engaging—in short, how to make wonderful drama out of minimal resources.
So it is with the Wismer show, a production indeed “unplugged"—from fancy costumes, elegant sets, control-booth lighting, 17th-century costumes. Indeed, as there are no programs, the players have to introduce themselves; director Johnson sits in the audience occasionally urging his players on; actors scramble up into the seats, sometimes even soliciting audience help in shoving crude chairs and tables around.
And yet, drama happens, and the illusion is made real. Aided by the actors’ exceptionally clear enunciation and their splendid movement about the stage, Molière’s spoof of gullible people and the religious hypocrites who prey upon them comes to life quite fully.
The actors are well-chosen, even definitive. It is hard to imagine a more prissily puritan Madame Pernelle (the woman who introduces Tartuffe into her son Orgon’s household) than Marcella Sincoff. The plumply buxom Allison Ward fits the irreverently saucy maid Dorine to a T. Beau Hirshfield creates a fine, slightly spaced-out Orgon, and Heather Cowell does nicely as his pretty young wife, Elmire—especially during a delicious seduction scene late in the play. Michael Biggs creates a diabolically slimy Tartuffe, and Marcus Sams, cool and clear-spoken, does very well as Elmire’s brother Cleante, the play’s voice of reasonable moderation. And finally, Sarah Oddi, Bryan Zoppi and Zachary Yurkovic are cleanly differentiated and affecting as members of Tartuffe‘s younger generation.
Polished, and yet also a kind of ongoing drama-in-the-making, Tartuffe is a play of arguments and one-on-one confrontations made quite delicious by its characters’ intense integrity and its splendidly choreographed movement. It is well worth the seeing.