Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Tartuffe" at Seattle Shakes - a delightful production

Christine Marie Brown and R. Hamilton Wright (John Ulman)

Seattle Shakespeare Company
Through April 12, 2015

Seattle Shakespeare Company has mounted a production of the classic Moliere comedy, Tartuffe. It’s classic because it’s old (1664), but also because it has timeless themes of hypocrisy, faith, and taking down authority – themes Moliere loved to use in his plays.

Director Makaela Pollock relocates the play from 1600s to 1947, specifically. And then weaves in conscious and unconscious references to Golden Hollywood and early television farce. However, true to many productions that relocate the timing of a classic play, they keep the rhyming couplets of Richard Wilbur’s translation from French.

The trappings of the play are cleverly updated with a ‘40s style living room (by Carol Wolfe Clay) and mostly gorgeous and colorful costumes (by Christine Meyers) and sublime sound/music choices (by Robertson Witmer) that even include underscoring of some scenes. That underscoring makes it seem like we’re watching a tv comedy. As clever as that all is, does that then elevate a television show, or perhaps lower a stage production? It seems to push the audience away from engagement, however unintentional.

The cast has some marvelous moments of clown-play. Christine Marie Brown as the wife Elmire has the best scene trying to both entice Tartuffe (R. Hamilton Wright) into seducing her while simultaneously trying to get her husband Orgon (Peter Lohnes) to come out from under the table and catch Tartuffe. Perfection.

Maya Sugarman plays Mariane, the daughter who is to be married off to ancient Tartuffe against her will, and has a long scene where she’s told this and says nothing. After an enormous time, she finally gives a whimper that is perfectly timed and so funny.

Tartuffe is the imposer, the con man, who finds a way to take over the household by bamboozling the “master.” Orgon’s mother (Suzy Hunt, in two funny morsels at the beginning and end of the play) is also bamboozled, entirely. Though cheeky maidservant Dorine (Bhama Roget) and Orgon’s brother (Brandon J. Simmons) try everything they can to convince them of Tartuffe’s treachery, they have to experience the proof themselves.

Wright does a great job at being a self-satisfied prig who convincingly turns on his marks. He is appropriately slimy, though maybe telegraphs his bad intentions a little too early. The only quibble I have with costuming is for Tartuffe. His cape is a matt color and a bit too staid. That era might provide a lot of very exciting upscale costuming for a prig, and I wished I could have seen some.

Speaking in rhyming couplets is a challenge and the cast masters it well. As the run continues, this solid group of players will likely get funnier and funnier as they relax into their roles and have more fun together. This is a delightful production.

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