Review: Amusing ‘Tartuffe’ pokes fun at French folks’ foibles

Once in costume, Amy McKenna falls into her roll as 'Elmire' Monday at the Norris Center where the cast was trying out their costumes during the first rehearsal of the comedy 'Tartuffe'. Gulfshore Playhouse is putting on the comedy Tartuffe which features elaborate, hand-made costumes to replicate 17th century elegance.  Monday was the first day of dress rehearsal when actors were allowed to try on the outfits and transform themselves into the characters they will be playing.  Michel Fortier/Staff

Photo by MICHEL FORTIER // Buy this photo

Once in costume, Amy McKenna falls into her roll as "Elmire" Monday at the Norris Center where the cast was trying out their costumes during the first rehearsal of the comedy "Tartuffe". Gulfshore Playhouse is putting on the comedy Tartuffe which features elaborate, hand-made costumes to replicate 17th century elegance. Monday was the first day of dress rehearsal when actors were allowed to try on the outfits and transform themselves into the characters they will be playing. Michel Fortier/Staff

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If you go

“Tartuffe”

What: French writer Molière’s comedic take take on 17th century aristocrats and hypocrisy

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Norris Community Center,

8th Street and 8th Avenue, Naples

Cost: $30

Information: 866-811-4111 or

www.gulfshoreplayhouse.org

Director Kristen Coury takes audiences on a thrill ride through the Parisian aristocracy in Gulfshore Playhouse’s latest offering, “Tartuffe.” The play is wickedly funny even as it continually exposes the faults and foibles of the “upper class” and comes stacked with actors able to navigate the stage whilst maneuvering through the loopy dialogue and even more outlandish costumes of the day.

“Tartuffe,” from the pen of French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known as Molière), comes from the 17th century. It was written and performed (and immediately censored) in 1664 for King Louis XIV at Versailles; its satirical poking at religion caused an unholy hullabaloo among the saintly factions at the French court. The production uses a translation from Richard Wilbur.

The play itself is the story of Orgon, a French aristocrat, seduced by the words and wiles of a hypocritical trickster, Tartuffe. Orgon, convinced that Tartuffe is a man of great religious zeal, devotes his life, wealth and eventually his daughter to the man before bowing to the truth after catching Tartuffe in flagrante delicto with his own wife.

Coury works hard to make this production palatable to Neapolitan tastes; she correctly understands that the performances are key in this absurdist comedy, especially as the dialogue is presented entirely in rhyming couplets. While the delivery takes a certain amount of getting used to, the show transitions from stilted to sublime once the actors fall into the cadence and rhythm dictated by the dialogue.

Anna Stone’s saucy maid Dorine is the unquestioned star of the play’s first act. Stone dusts off the clichéd “wise servant” character with a fervor and precision that’s a delight to watch; she seizes upon the rhyming scheme with particular gaiety, delivering her lines with a tart sensibility that belies her pedestrian position. Better still, she has a gift for slapstick, employing her feather duster as a rapier to cut through the silliness of her noble family’s stilted manners.

Steve Brady’s Orgon is a fantastically deluded institution, especially after the actor catches fire halfway through the night. Likewise, McKenna (Elmire) comes into her own during the second act, wielding her painted fan like a shield as she dances around the stage in a verbal battle with first Orgon and then Tartuffe. Katrina Foy (Mariane) and Kevin Duda (Damis/Valere) also sparkle as a pair of feather-brained lovers; their extended quarrel and subsequent reconciliation was a fast-paced thrill ride through the foolish fecundity of foppish manners that passed for polite conversation during the period.

Much of the whimsical pleasure of watching people in grand clothes and ringleted wigs is getting caught up in the on-stage drama. When Coury’s “Tartuffe” is firing, as it does frequently, her Parisian apparition unfolds gloriously on stage. Consequently, the parts that aren’t as finely tuned seem dimmer by comparison.

One of her most ambitious strokes, the casting of veteran actor Richard Crawford in a dual role as the titular charlatan as well as doddering dowager Madame Pernelle, is perhaps less successful than she intends. In one of the night’s few sour notes, Crawford seems to lack the necessary grasp of just how audacious the performances in both roles need to be. His performance is more measured and controlled, in contrast to the near caricatures on display elsewhere. Tartuffe as a character is absolutely without shame, a cheeky monkey knowingly stealing the fruit of others’ labors and Crawford just doesn’t quite match that.

The peculiar structure of “Tartuffe” is perhaps the production’s greatest stumbling block; the slow boil of the tedious opening scene does the show few favors, while the second act sometimes struggles to recapture the frantic crescendo of momentum built before intermission. Although somewhat irregular, Coury might benefit by excising the break and preserving the dramatic thrust.

Outrageously be-ribboned and be-ruffled costumes and original paintings come from Jackie Morelisse, the mind behind the recent Crayola-explosion sets in “Moon Over the Brewery” for the Naples Players. Sean McClelland’s lavish drawing room set and Curtis Lee Jones’ lighting design pair nicely; the flickering chandelier’s ceiling medallion is a wonderful touch.

“Tartuffe” is a singular creation that likely operates wholly apart from the expectations of modern audiences. There’s plenty to love — and laugh — about with this production, from caterwauling lovebirds to hoodwinked aristocrats and beyond. Molière’s prose retains its bite through translation and four centuries and delivers a sound reproach to the pitfalls of false pride.

What does the French clown say after being hit in the face with a pie? Tart-oooff! Email me at csilk@naplesnews.com

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