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Tartuffe, or the Impostor

Despite the unsettling staging by Daniel Fish, the broadly comic absurdities of Moliere's classic farce are fully realized in the rigorous performances of a capable cast.

Peter Morgan

It’s like a madhouse with the keeper gone,” cries the carping grandmother early in the McCarter Theater Center’s production of “Tartuffe, or the Imposter.” Despite the unsettling staging by Daniel Fish, the broadly comic absurdities of Moliere’s classic farce are fully realized in the rigorous performances of a capable cast. The familiar Richard Wilbur verse translation, with its dancing dialogue of rhymed couplets, is a constant and dazzling pleasure for the ears. The eyes, on the other hand, are privy to a more disturbing distraction.

John Conklin’s unconventional set designates one-third of the stage as a sumptuously ornate boxed 17th century boudoir. The rest is left barren, save for two large screens enabling viewers to eavesdrop on the action and intimacies that take place in the bedroom. Adding to the voyeurism is a young lady (Alexandra Eaton) dressed in sweater and jeans with a hand-held video camera, who crouches and strolls about, shooting the action that ultimately appears on twin screens. Sight lines are likely to be threatened for some viewers.

It is a curious and often annoying conceit. Kaye Voyce’s stylish costumes offer a sense of period, yet to draw out obvious parallels to the contemporary avarice of today’s society, an officer of the law (Tom Story) and a bailiff (Andy Paterson) make a closing appearance in modern garb.

But to the measurable credit of the actors, a larkish, extravagant mood prevails. Tartuffe, of course, makes a delayed entrance into the household disarray, and Zach Grenier plays him with steely, unnerving malevolence. Cloaked in the guise of false religious zeal, Grenier acts the classic hypocrite with the subtle, lecherous facade of your everyday stalker.

Hell knows no fury to compare with Michael Rudko as duped host Orgon. The cuckolded aristocrat reveals a boiling temper that becomes hilariously volcanic as he tears apart the mattress of a four-poster in search of his stolen fortune.

Michelle Beck defines anguish and ardor as Orgon’s comely daughter, and Daniel Cameron Talbott displays keenly structured rage as her lightheaded suitor. As Orgon’s hot-tempered son, Nick Westrate accents his foolish fury by brandishing a firearm. But when he reaches, in contemporary contrast, for a dysfunctional lighter to spark a cigarette, the gag is a clumsy bit of action that doesn’t work.

Sally Wingert as an impudent and resourceful maid, Beth Dixon’s skeptical grandmother and Christina Rouner as Orgon’s wife all contribute well-defined performances.

Despite the distractions of the set and the intrusive video, Fish, who helmed the controversial “naked” Princeton “Hamlet” two years ago, guides his players well. If all of his adventurous ideas fail to resonate, the genius of Moliere rises above the theatrical gimmicks.

Tartuffe, or the Impostor

Mathews Theater, Princeton, N.J.; 1,075 seats; $55 top

  • Production: A McCarter Theater Center presentation in association with Yale Repertory Theater of a play in two acts by Moliere, translated by Richard Wilbur. Directed by Daniel Fish.
  • Crew: Set, John Conklin; costumes, Kaye Voyce; lighting, Jane Cox; video design, Alexandra Eaton; sound, Karin Graybash; production stage manager, Alison Cote. Opened, reviewed Oct. 12, 2007. Runs through Oct. 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Mme. Pernelle - Beth Dixon Orgon - Michael Rudko Elmire - Christina Rouner Damis - Nick Westrate Mariane - Michelle Beck Valere - Daniel Cameron Talbott Cleante - Christopher Donahue Tartuffe - Zach Grenier Dorine - Sally Wingert M. Loyal - Andy Paterson Police Officer - Tom Story
  • Music By: