Monday, April 06, 2009


[Reviewed for Show Business Weekly]

The good and bad of the Pearl Theatre’s revival of Tartuffe is clearest when Damis (Sean McNall) leaps from a closet to protect his mother, Elmire (Rachel Botchan), from the lecherous advances of the not-so-pious Tartuffe (Bradford Cover). Hamming it up, he falls out ass backward, though he turns this collapse into a sprightly roll. Sam Fleming’s terrific costuming telegraphs his every move — we can tell from his foppish mane of golden hair and his gaudy garb that he’s going to fail, but that, in failing, he’s going to be hilarious. That he should run out of breath while ranting is both youthful inexperience and passion — in any case, he’s committed. In other words, although Gus Kaikkonen’s rendering of Moliere goes overboard, it never drowns.

It does, however, sag — especially if you’re not familiar with the Pearl’s dedicated troupe of resident actors. Too much of the show is about them: Moliere’s specificity is washed away by boisterously disconnected work. They nail their blocking — the play opens with the sound of an approaching argument — but they don’t think about it. That’s why the energy drops when Mme. Pernelle (Carol Schultz) first steps into Harry Feiner’s tapestry-covered dining room: Nobody’s actually heated enough to follow through without the aid of lines or specific actions. This leads to missed beats, and those brief pauses pockmark Richard Wilbur’s excellent translation of the rhymed couplets.

This disconnect between actions and dialogue (or between actors and motivation) leads most of the cast to compensate the only way they can: by getting bigger and bigger. At one point, Tartuffe turns to the audience and shrugs, as if he can’t believe Orgon’s stupidity either, before taking a maliciously evil bite of an apple; it’s the show’s lowest point, for it strips away the little humanity that Cover’s performance has left it.

Thankfully, Tartuffe is a waterproof show, helped by the floatation devices of the cast’s strong female players (Robin Leslie Brown, Carrie McCrossen, and Botchan) whose directness helps them stay connected. And if in the end we’re laughing more at the flailing about of the actors than at the very funny play itself, we are still, after all, laughing.

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