Manic Molire

Richard Hamburger does a Chuck Jones take on a 17th-century French master

I can feel Dallas Theater Center artistic director Richard Hamburger sending mental waves in this direction and to all the other armchair artistic directors in Dallas: OK, folks, you asked for more Dallas actors, and you got 'em. Now sod off! Local actors way outnumber imported ones in his very enjoyable if somewhat scattered production of Moliere's Tartuffe, and a local yokel even has the lead, albeit by default: Undermain's Raphael Parry stepped in at the last minute to replace Hamburger's original choice of Bill Dawes, the actor who played Lord Alfred Douglas for a year and a half Off-Broadway in Gross Indecency. The trend continues in a couple weeks with DTC's How I Learned to Drive, in which all supporting roles are played by backyard talent.

Even better, I'm relieved to say, is that the Dallas actors of Tartuffe saved my advocate ass from embarrassment--all acquit themselves with skilled farcical spirit in Moliere's tale of a prosperous household usurped by a licentious con man who has his pious shtick down cold. Talking humbly and frequently about God, the title character has wormed his way into the graces of Orgon (Charles Lanyer), a man whose tendencies toward fluster and befuddlement don't ease the iron grip with which he squeezes his family. As the program correctly notes, Tartuffe is as much about the tyrannical results of an authority figure refusing to admit his errors as it is about religious hypocrisy.

Not despite, but probably because of warnings from his meddling maid Dorine (Lisa Lee Schmidt), his close confidante Cleante (Bob Hess), and his son Damis (Ashley Wood), Orgon is determined to bring Tartuffe into his family by forcing his timid daughter Marianne (Brandy Zarle) to marry the religious advisor. We see early on that blindness may be genetic in this family, as Orgon's mother, Madame Pernelle (Sheriden Thomas) possesses a distinctly similar propensity for refusing to have her mind changed.

Richard Hamburger's biggest influence for this production of Tartuffe seems to be legendary Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones: Hamburger directs as if he were painting the actors onto animation cels. One actor makes his entrances with a swashbuckling, superhero swoosh; a father and son enact a deliberately maudlin reconciliation scene, with the distinct echo of imploring strings in your ears; there's a feverish seduction scene worthy of Pepe Le Pew. Most of these comic touches work wonderfully, because the actors are able to sustain the tone. Raphael Parry, in particular, reminded me of Daffy Duck (that's a compliment). He doesn't deliver an especially subtle performance, but given that Hamburger has Parry drag around a gigantic cross on wheels and even mount himself there at one point, it's of a piece with the surrounding antics. Parry snivels grandly. Lisa Lee Schmidt, as the cheeky maid Dorine, gets some of the show's biggest laughs, especially in her prodding of the mousy Marianne. Bob Hess as Cleante and Rene Augesen as Elmire, Orgon's wife, give less harried performances because they play household anchors, founts of maturity; Augesen is able to hit the fast-forward button during a very funny near-roll with Tartuffe on a tabletop.

The only thing I would quibble with are the anachronistic touches, including a boom box and a motorcycle. Purism is very often a euphemism for snobbery, the idea that because something is very old it is superior to our debased, high-tech, pop-culture world (I would argue that if Moliere were alive today, he'd be writing for the stage and, to pay his gardener, for The Simpsons). But if you're going to mix eras on stage, you have to evolve the anachronisms into some larger scheme or point. In this way, DTC's Tartuffe looks a little like a junk drawer. The contemporary touches are sometimes distracting, but ultimately not debilitating.

The biggest problem with Tartuffe has nothing to do with Hamburger and his actors. It may stem from Christopher Hampton's economical translation, which eschews flowery verbiage for clean, straightforward, non-colloquial dialogue. But I suspect, having read a more "classical" translation of Tartuffe in college, that it stems from the script of the 17th-century French master himself: As written, the character of Tartuffe has no layers. From the opening scene through several conversations about this interloper, we hear again and again what a hypocritical, manipulative, greedy, and deceitful person he is. When he finally makes his entrance about a third of the way into the play, we discover instantly that everyone was right. To have the supporting characters perfectly summarize the lead before he even enters, and to offer us nothing more than what they have already provided, makes for a stunted evening of theater. There's no pleasure of revelation in anything Tartuffe does or, for that matter, in Orgon's big transformation, which amounts to learning what his family (and the audience) already knew.

Tartuffe is often included in Moliere collections with The Misanthrope, whose verbal brilliance and subtly shaded title character blow this play out of the water. But Tartuffe comes with the imprimatur of having been officially banned by the French king for years during the playwright's lifetime. For critics and scholars, nothing makes a mediocre script glitter more than the grimy fingerprints of censorship. It helps enormously that the resourceful Hamburger and company spitshine Tartuffe to an even brighter gleam.

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