Banned by the Pope!


Top to bottom: Allen Pontes, Julie Anchor and Andrew Hutchinson in Molière’s <i>Tartuffe</i>: “The French are funny,” said the politician. “They have no word for <i>ménage à trois</i>.”

Top to bottom: Allen Pontes, Julie Anchor and Andrew Hutchinson in Molière’s Tartuffe: “The French are funny,” said the politician. “They have no word for ménage à trois.”

Rated 4.0

One admirable thing about Main Street Theatre Works’ production of Tartuffe is its marketing moxie.

Traditionally, it’s been fairly easy to get Americans to buy movie tickets to see a sexy French comedy. (And Hollywood’s done plenty of remakes.)

But mention the great 17th-century French playwright Molière, and some folks get cautious. Isn’t that, like, literature? Lingering memories of a university class not fondly recalled. Didn’t I see a production smothered in wigs and period costumes along the way?

The current production up in Sutter Creek cleverly short-circuits all that, starting with cover art: a man and woman in 1800s garb, arms placed suggestively, topped off by a drop-in banner, reading “Banned in Versailles, by order of the Pope.”

And of course, Tartuffe is the mother of all sexy French comedies. But what particularly stung the religious authorities back in 1664 was the depiction of the outwardly devout, self-denying (but inwardly lecherous, money-grasping) title character, who is every bit as funny and dangerous now as he was back then.

Allen Pontes (as Tartuffe) behaves like a civilian St. Francis when the occasion demands it. But, when he’s alone with his benefactor’s wife, he flashes a sexy smile, extends a long, predatory tongue and lets his hands wander all over … well, you know.

Director Vada Russell consistently goes for a loud, broad comic style in this upscale community effort, which mostly features Sacramento actors. Russell has the worried Cleante (Thomas Bach) do his lines with what sounds like a four-octave range, from deep, rumbling insinuation up to high-pitched accusation. The duped benefactor Orgon (Andrew Hutchinson) is forever boiling over with physical frustration, while nervous daughter Mariane (Stacey Matthews) bursts into tears and whimpers at the drop of a hat. It’s up to the more sensible, long-suffering middle-aged women like Orgon’s wife Elmire (Julie Anchor) and servant Dorine (Susan McCandless) to hold things together.

Russell also moves the action to the Mother Lode circa 1854—playing off the Sutter Creek locale—and tosses in a wacky little Clint Eastwood homage at the end. In other words, this show’s designed to be enjoyed rather than studied, even if it does feature an abundance of clever, rhyming lines that set up barbed comebacks in the translation by Richard Wilbur.

The costumes (McCandless and Pam Edwards) run to big-hooped skirts for the women, with cowboy boots and an open collar for Tartuffe. The set (Margo Carr and Mark Russell) is a veritable garden of paper flowers and pretty woodbeam construction. You also may notice some fresh paint and other improvements in the lovely old Sutter Creek Theatre, which dates from 1919.