I’ve adored the genius of Molière’s comedy ever since catching my college’s production of The School for Wives back in the early ’90s. So I was thrilled that Reno Little Theater is presenting Tartuffe this spring.
Although the production was funny, I wound up somewhat disappointed in the end by the show’s lack of commitment to the play’s setting, as well as by its actors’ uneven performances.
Forget for a minute that Tartuffe (“The Imposter”) was written in 1664 and is set during—and pokes fun at—the reign of King Louis XIV. Though the playwright is mightily funny, he tends to be verbose. Reno Little Theater’s production of Tartuffe draws upon Christopher Hampton’s 1983 translation, which is (thankfully) only comprised of two acts as opposed to the original three, and offers more contemporary dialogue. It sets the story in 1920s France.
To be clear, I’m fine with all that. The updated version makes the story easier to follow and helps the story to move along at a healthy clip. It’s set in the Jazz Age, time of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, in the epicenter of arts and culture. And the dialogue’s more contemporary feel makes the themes more universal and timeless.
The play opens in of Orgon’s home. While Orgon himself (played by Kirk Gardner) is away, awaiting his arrival are his wife, Elmire (played by Annikki Larsson); their son, Damis (Anthony Mendoza); their daughter, Mariane (Breana Edgerton); their nosy chambermaid, Dorine (Jessica Nicholas); and Elmire’s visiting sister, Cléante (Julie Douglass). Orgon’s mother, Madame Pernelle (Veronica Fraser), has come for a visit and lectures the family about their sinful lifestyle. She’s disgusted that none of them seems impressed with Orgon’s friend, Tartuffe.
Tartuffe (Gary Cremeans), who claims to be a man of unreserved religious devotion, has so completely convinced Orgon of his piety that he has manipulated his way into living in the man’s home, being named heir to his fortune and securing the hand of Orgon’s daughter, forcing Mariane to call off her impending nuptials with her true love, Valère (Brandon Keil). He has turned Orgon against his own family. Now Tartuffe has tried to seduce Elmire, and that’s the last straw. The family cooks up a plan to expose Tartuffe.
Performance-wise, it’s a mixed bag. Mendoza and Keil were awkward and stiff in their roles, and Douglass’ Cléante was eye-roll-inducing as she lectured Orgon about his blindness toward Tartuffe. Her character is intended to be the voice of reason, but she came off as cloying and school-marmish.
Although the actors primarily wear ’20s-era costumes, very little else speaks of the era. There’s no jazz or colloquial language from that period. And when Tartuffe finally makes his appearance toward the end of Act 1, he’s unshaven and greasy-haired, wearing clothing that’s out of step, time-wise, from the rest of the cast. There’s not even a mention of France. This confusion is compounded when, in the final scene, an officer (Jeff Burres) steps on stage to sort out the trouble, looking like a World War II-era SS trooper and babbling about the president. What the hell? Where are we?
The show does have redeeming qualities. This is the second production I’ve seen Larsson in, and the second time I’ve really liked her. Same goes for Fraser’s stern Madame Pernelle, who is hilarious as she ignorantly sings Tartuffe’s praises. Gary Cremeans’ Tartuffe is wonderfully slimy. I enjoyed the brisk pace at which much of the dialogue was delivered, which befits Molière’s style, and certain exchanges involving Dorine, Orgon and Mariane had the entire audience laughing.
But in the end, the production feels incomplete and unsure of itself, which keeps it from rising to its full height.