Would Moliere complain because he found a fly in his “Tartuffe?” We think not. Unholy spectacle though it may be, the dynamic demolition job that the Classical Theater of Harlem has made of this classic work is entirely in keeping with the play’s original satiric intent. As cunningly manhandled by Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner, “Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe” is a rollicking sendup of a flamboyant Rev. Ike-like minister who bamboozles a rich man into handing over his fortune. With charismatic Andre De Shields holding forth as the shameless charlatan, church services are a gas.
It helps if you know what you’re in for, and auds should come prepared to be pawed over, patted down, panhandled and otherwise drawn into the highly irregular church service conducted by the divine De Shields at his most irreverent. Irregular and irreverent, yes, but altogether theatrical, thanks to Greg Mitchell’s flashy-trashy temple setting of neon lights and metallic grids and Aaron Black’s color-drenched lighting design. If God is in this house of worship, He must be a vaudeville fan.
But while the language is uptown and the performance style down and dirty, helmer Preisser (CTH co-founder and company a.d.) and co-creative Weiner respectfully observe the bones of Moliere’s comedy. The message about the cupidity of unscrupulous religious hucksters and the willful stupidity of people who fall for their cynical spiel is forever fresh — although the contempo version suggests that the hustle is pure entertainment, making the victims gleeful participants in the con.
According to a lyric in the final song, “The only thing he wanted/Was to give us an awesome show.”
Ted Lange, that most dependable of actors, is true to his winning ways as Orgon, an honest but gullible merchant who hands over all his money to Tartuffe in exchange for the promise of — not exactly the pure religious ecstasy Moliere had in mind, but good times in the company of the scantily clad cuties in Tartuffe’s Supreme Choir.
Comparing himself with other preachers who advocate abstinence in this life and fulfillment in the next, Tartuffe raps: “I tell you straight up, if you want your pie in the sky after you die, I am not your guy. But if you want cake right now … then come along in my ride.”
Orgon can’t resist. And with his sexy younger wife, Elmire (the wonderful Kim Brockington), leading the pack, the family watches its inheritance dwindling away and makes all the appropriate protests — quite often and, surprisingly, in Moliere’s very own words.
But what fun would all this be if we didn’t have a dazzling Tartuffe? And as played by the indestructible De Shields, the rogue is truly dazzling. Belying the years on him, the veteran performer is still loving the skin he’s in and making a terrific display of himself. He sings like a ’50s R&B star, dances like a Harlem hoofer and just charms the hell out of the audience.
True to his character, the man also loves his clothes, designed with a certain horrified awe by Kimberly Glennon. Tartuffe makes his grand entrance in red velveteen suit and snakeskin shoes (“Do not hate me because I am fabulous,” he begs his screaming flock), then follows it up with a hot-pink number with a lovely drape. But just wait for the finale costume — a black-and-white Japanese kimono over paisley shorts. If you’re not having fun by now, you are a lost cause.