Theater review, Tartuffe: Hot and heavy under the collar

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The weight of the cross, familial expectations, and a family’s desperate attempt to enlighten their pollyanna patriarch are the building blocks Molière left back in 1664.

Shaheen Vaaz, the director, has crafted a winning recipe with a dynamic cast, witty intellectual dialogue, and a live musical performance, for her interpretation of “Tartuffe.”

The content of the script is what makes this play timeless. These themes of religion, hypocrisy, foolishness, morality and ethics are all universal and do not need the assistance of fashion from the 1960s to be relatable.

Vaaz had a novel idea, changing the time period, but lacked follow through. I believe it was an all-or-nothing decision, either completely transform into a 1960s production or do not, and she tried to choose both.

The costumes themselves are very aesthetically pleasing, but they did nothing to enhance anyone’s understanding of the play.

The play opens with an upset Madame Pernelle (Avita Broukhim) rushing out of her son Orgon’s (Brian Felker) home, all the while berating her son’s second wife, Elmire (Leah Foster) and her brother, Cleante (Ben Landmesser), as well as Orgon’s two children, Damis (Gregory Hanson), and Mariane (Michelle Johnson) for their treatment of the titular character Tartuffe (Amir Khalighi).

Orgon has been away on business for two days. Upon returning, he summons Dorine (Meagan Truxal), Mariane’s maid, to fill him in on the status of the house. To Dorine’s dismay, Orgon seemingly couldn’t care less about his wife’s debilitating fever, while hanging over Tartuffe’s every word.

Mariane is set to marry Valere (Nickolas Caisse), a young, ecstatic lover. The two are madly in love; their relationship is akin to any generic high school romance.

Orgon and his mother have both been deluded into believing the treacherous words of Tartuffe, a religious hypocrite and con man. Orgon is so far gone under his spell; he even turns a blind eye when Tartuffe makes a sexual advance on his wife. Damis, is not one to pass up a chance at exposing the fraud, no matter how tactless he appears.

Tartuffe, takes this opportunity to display his particular skill for redirecting blame, and points the finger at Damis. Orgon, choosing to believe he’d raised a churlish child rather than see the truth at hand, demands Damis apologize to the crooked priest. When Damis refuses, Orgon banishes him from the estate.

This is the turning point of the play; the audience is left to contemplate Orgon’s decision. He truly believes anything Tartuffe says or does is divine intervention, so can he really be mocked for his choice?  If Abraham were willing to sacrifice Isaac, who are we to say Orgon would not have done the same at his beloved preacher’s request?

Felker, as Orgon, perfectly captures the outrage expected of a man who’s been betrayed on every fundamental level. Broukhim, as Madame Pernelle, was not afraid to use her cane as a weapon. Her performance reminds us all of a time when our mothers wouldn’t believe us, and the frustration that ensued.

Foster, as Elmire, was elegance personified. Her careful, deliberate movements represent much of the same tactful tendencies her character requires. Johnson, as Mariane, and Truxal, as Dorine, had the most relatable chemistry, whether intentional or otherwise. Together they broke the dynamic expected of a master and servant and it was a relief for the audience to see a true friendship onstage.

Landmesser, as Cleante, was the unsung champion of reason throughout the play. Whenever the tension rose to its limit, Cleante was there to ensure a smooth transition. The antagonists’ aversion to Cleante’s worldly and well travelled liberal views were an apt metaphor for the use of religion as a tool. Everything not inside these narrowed views were perceived as sin, to question this was blasphemous, it’s no wondering why this play was banned by the church for five years.

Khalighi, as Tartuffe, who bears a striking resemblance to our women’s volleyball head coach, Nabil Mardini, is the very rare example of a perfect cast. The speed at which he’s able to switch tones is what allows him to drift perfectly between the humble, altruistic preacher, and the venomous snake that lies waiting for the most opportune moment to strike.

James Longstreet, who performed the live score, was absolutely fantastic. His ability to hit his cues allowed the entire play’s momentum to flow evenly and was undoubtedly integral to this performance’s success.

The minimalistic set design gave room for the actors themselves to decorate the stage. Going off the quality alone, one would be fair pressed to learn the floor was hand-painted.

Overall, having been written and performed in rhyme, the decision to add beats and rhythm on top of the player’s dialogue was a nice touch. This is definitely a play worth seeing.

“Tartuffe” runs through Oct. 30, in the Dow Arena Theater. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com or by phone: 818-719-6488. Visit the website for ticket prices.