Fanatic worship of a false icon has never been more humorously or dramatically portrayed than in Moliere’s 17th-century masterpiece “Tartuffe.” Directed with a keen psychological eye and lacerating comic flair by Jack Stehlin (who also takes the title role), the new Odyssey Theatre Ensemble/Circus Theatricals version preserves every laugh in the text while respecting the plot’s slashing indictment of religious hypocrisy and greed.
Tartuffe is a magnetic con man who oozes piety and preys upon such gullible worshippers as the wealthy Orgon (Mark Bramhall). Orgon is so “dreadfully deluded” by his idol’s apparent purity of spirit that he mounts a mammoth cross in his living room and forces his family to accept the interloper. When told of his sick wife’s numerous symptoms, all he can ask is, “How’s Tartuffe?” He orders daughter Mariane (Nickella Dee) to break off her engagement to the man she loves, Valere (Daniel C. Gibbons), insisting she wed Tartuffe instead. As son Damis (Dylan Kussman) looks on in horror, Orgon ridicules wife Elmire (Daphne Zuniga) when she fights to convince him this fake paragon of virtue has made sexual advances to her.
“You deserve to be Tartuttified,” cries Orgon’s outspoken maid Dorine (Gigi Bermingham), after he refuses to acknowledge how his monomaniacal fixation is destroying his family. Dorine is a brilliantly conceived character, a voice of sanity amid chaos, and Bermingham captures the qualities of leadership that enable her to indirectly run Orgon’s house.
As the emotionally enslaved Orgon, Bramhall demonstrates limitless versatility. Prissy, stubborn, tyrannical, angry and pathetic by turns, he’s a walking one-man repertoire of emotions and physical gestures. No matter how infuriating his behavior, Bramhall finds a core of humanity in the character and shows how people of sound judgment can be taken in if a fiendish manipulator pushes the right buttons.
Stehlin’s Tartuffe is a silky snake, Uriah Heep with the calculating treachery fully out front. In the play’s famous sequence where he urges Elmire to sleep with him, his masterful delivery of the line, “If heaven is all that holds you back, don’t worry,” exemplifies every con man showing his true colors. No one is likely to forget the moment when he gropes Elmire and tears off one of her stockings with his teeth, or the assertion of power that drives him to kiss the lips of a flabbergasted Orgon.
Show’s other standout portrayal is Gibbons’ Valere. His exaggerated entrances and whirling poses are as funny as Moliere’s dialogue.
Zuniga has charm and beauty. Although her diction sounds more modern than classical, she scores triumphantly in the seduction scene. As Damis, the likable Kussman turns up the volume too loudly in the first act before leveling off believably in the second. Dee makes an appealingly desperate Mariane, and Daniel Nathan Spector, as Orgon’s brother in law, is fine in a role that requires him to philosophize and dispense advice rather than contributing anything significant to the plot.
Melissa McVay’s eclectic costumes are attractive without adhering strictly to any particular period, and Diane Marie Taylor’s scenic design is appropriately uncluttered, allowing the exuberant actors to function freely.
Director Stehlin makes certain that nothing distracts from the droll interactions between Tartuffe and Orgon, or the graceful rhythms of Richard Wilbur’s rhymed translation.