New Review: Tartuffe at the Pearl Theatre Company

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tartuffe

For Back Stage. Here’s the review:

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The classical repertory teems with plays arguably revisited too often; Shakespeare, suffice it to say, heads the list. Tartuffe, Moli√®re’s gleefully insouciant satire of religious fervor, is another such play. It may be the great French dramatist’s most adored work, but to mount it memorably these days a director requires a strong angle on the piece, an attitude about it that can be manifest in all aspects of the production, from the blocking to the visuals to the performances. The Pearl Theatre Company has such a director in Gus Kaikkonen.

Not that Kaikkonen has conjured a radical Tartuffe. He still respects the fire opal dialogue of Richard Wilbur’s gemlike translation. The title character still enters for the first time when the play is nearly half over. But Kaikkonen doesn’t have to transplant Tartuffe to Texas, Tanzania, or the moon to try something new. It’s still set in 17th-century France, as Harry Feiner’s rug-filled set, Sam Fleming’s décolletage-accentuating costumes, and Stephen Petrilli’s coolly crisp lighting all clarify. What the director does, however, is take a theatrical hot poker and stick it to the Pearl’s in-house acting company, which is rapidly approaching an astonishing level of chemistry and cohesiveness. Boy, can some of these actors let the comedy rip! It’s uneven; it’s messy; it even backfires at times. But we’re talking a throat-grabbing, go-for-broke, what-the-hell mirth mania. Amid imperfections, it’s a welcome sight.

Bradford Cover’s Tartuffe, a bearded conniver professing unswerving faith in God while lusting for Rachel Botchan’s glittery Elmire, is a great example. We know from prior Pearl productions that Cover can cover scansion; Wilbur’s Alexandrine rhyming couplets fly off his tongue at warp speed. But when we observe Tartuffe lust for Elmire, his upper lip gyrating spasmodically, it’s mugging for all the right reasons, a new way for Wilbur’s words to abet the comic crime.

Robin Leslie Brown is another example. Given how bumbling, cranky, and ultimately doofuslike is T.J. Edwards’ gullible Orgon, Brown’s whaddaya-want, I’ve-been-around-the-block voice turns wisecracking maid Dorine into a veritable fountain of sooth. Brown also has the right physicality: all hips, wrists, and chins.

As Orgon’s son, Damis, Sean McNall, who typically sends Pearl productions into the stratosphere with his inspired lead performances, demonstrates that even in a relatively minor role he can make merry with an uncooperative dagger, jubilantly dance around a table, and fail to burst out of a closet while sporting a Cheshire-cat grin. Similarly, Dominic Cuskern in the unshowy role of Cleante, Orgon’s levelheaded brother, fastens himself to the farce at hand. There are fine-but perceptibly lower-gloss-performances by Carrie McCrossen as Mariane, Orgon’s daughter, and John William Schiffbauer as Valere, Mariane’s besotted betrothed.

Presented by and at the Pearl Theatre Company,
80 St. Mark’s Place, NYC.

March 30-April 19. Tue., 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 2 p.m. (No performance Tue., March 31.) (212) 598-9802 or www.PearlTheatre.org.