A dream cast of local legends, theater veterans and rising stars makes up the ensemble production of “Tartuffe.” This classic Moliere comedy, playing at Seabury Hall, has been directed by Vinnie Linares and Jennifer Rose in a show rich with laughter, meaning and risk-taking theatrics. It’s presented in the round and, while every seat is a good one, I recommend sitting as near to the center stage as possible. You’ll want to get close to these exceptional performances.
Tartuffe is a man of faith, influence and local acclaim. He’s also a total fake and a lustful liar who gleefully takes advantage of everyone who crosses his path. A collection of family members and social butterflies who fall prey to his persuasion become tossed into his tornado of deceit.
Moliere remains not only one of the most highly influential playwrights who ever lived but an ahead-of-his-time commentator on human behavior. “Tartuffe” tackles the hypocrisy of religious con men and the fools who would follow such an individual. Linares’ updates the material to the Victorian Era, but even if it were still set long before the days of Oscar Wilde, the subject matter would still feel of the moment. The timelessness of Moliere’s words doesn’t make this heavy handed but only adds purpose and resonance. Also, the show is drop-dead funny, which is the best reason to see it.
“Tartuffe” takes off right away, establishing a brisk pace and an anything-goes approach in its portrayal of Moliere’s highly influential comedy. Caro Walker’s set and the costumes by Vicki and Jessica Nelson are dazzling. There are long scenes that buzz and hum with verbal acrobatics and laugh-inducing bits. I was frequently impressed by the cast’s control of the words, allowing for performance inflection (and not rhyming patterns) to propel their work. The level of difficulty in the roles is off the charts and these actors not only overcome the obstacles of unique material but make it funny as well.
Frances Taua’s appearance in the first scene sets a tone and illustrates how good this is: he’s playing Madame Pernelle and the character is big but Taua isn’t doing shtick. He’s awfully funny but there is depth and satire in Taua’s take on this woman’s stubborn willingness to follow a charlatan as he leads his flock off a cliff. Todd Von Amburgh is terrific as Orgon, whose belief in the title character borders on (and transcends) madness. Lisa Teichner has mouthfuls of dialog that she makes thoroughly engaging and downright musical.
Kalani Whitford is a riot in the title role, creating a compelling figure and finding the right moments to let a fiendish delight shine through. The joy in Barry Kawakami ‘s performance is evident every time he’s on stage, as his cleverly manic work offers nods to classic comedy tropes. Seabury hall students Bailey Dalzell and Zac Kubo offer the right amount of youthful innocence and perseverance in their turns as young lovers. Barbara Sedano has funny moments on the side that she readily steals and there’s great character work from Larry Goodnight, Jim Oxborrow and Liam Ball in supporting turns. Arguably the most outrageous work comes from Kathy Collins- her take on Elmire (Orgon’s wife) is sharp and insightful, as well as gloriously daffy.
Whitford’s scenes with Collins get pretty wild, to say the least. At one point, Whitford flagellates himself with a handful of long stem flowers. There’s also an outrageous bit with a banana. I’m glad I saw it, otherwise I wouldn’t have believed it had someone else described it to me.
Playwright Robinson Jeffers adapted Moliere’s work and creates an experience that makes the material accessible. The dialog alternates between rhyming couplets and an updated translation. The clarity of meaning is strong, both in the words and the performances, which bring this hysterical but sharp farce vividly to life.
Linares, in his program, suggests his actors are intentionally going “over-the-top.” Actually, his actors aren’t giving hammy turns but highly stylized performances; the emotions of their characters are dialed way up, allowing the inner drive of their roles to be the focal point. Everyone on stage is in line with this approach and admirably rises to the challenge of the material.
There are generous bits of physical comedy, some of which are alarmingly (and appropriately) raunchy. I’ll never look at a banana the same way again.
The last performance of Tartuffe is today, March 25th, 3PM at Seabury Hall. Tickets are available at the door.