Self-Serving Piety

The UA makes 'Tartuffe' into a winning, relevant play more than 330 years after its debut

Before the rise of mass media helped create creatures called televangelists (and their radio predecessors), it was so much tougher for a religious hypocrite to make a living scamming the pious and gullible.

Before it was possible to con millions of people with a single broadcast, the opportunist had to con one mark at a time. And what finesse this required; when you're dealing with people face to face, you have to romance them, capitalize on their specific weaknesses, come up with quick answers to their questions and doubts, and constantly assure their friends and family that by relieving your followers of heavy coin you are simply lightening their souls for a quicker trip to heaven.

It's such difficult work, but a true master of the religious scam could live like a small-scale pope, if he found the right victims. One such master is Tartuffe, who has taken over the household of Orgon, a gentlemanly bourgeois with income begging to be disposed of. In fact, Tartuffe is poised to take physical possession of Orgon's house, and perhaps even his wife.

So matters stand in Molière's Tartuffe, a stage comedy as relevant today as it was when the author polished its last draft in 1669. The UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre has mounted a winning production of the classic, its only little flaw being a tendency to argue too hard for the story's pertinence.

Director Harold Dixon bridges the play's acts with a series of brief, uncredited intermezzi, little blackouts illustrating religious hypocrisy in 2006. Such insertions were a fairly common theater practice in some regions 350 years ago, so the problem isn't that the intermezzi are theatrically anachronistic. The trouble is that it just doesn't take much courage right now to do a skit about Mel Gibson's anti-Semitism or about Fred Phelps, the minister who pickets the funerals of murdered gay men with signs that say "God hates fags." These are easy, common targets of ridicule and dismay. Why not take on subjects that will really rile people, like certain elements of Catholic dogma, curious aspects of Mormonism, Israeli bellicosity or the bloodlust of some followers of Islam?

Perhaps Dixon and the UA faculty were disinclined to deal with death threats and legislative calls for defunding.

What the troupe does deliver is a pitch-perfect production of Molière, right from the traditional seven quick and three slow raps on the stage just before the action begins. Dixon directs the student cast in his own limber verse translation of the French original. For once, here is a Molière free of Briticisms and archaic turns of phrase. True, Dixon does pepper the dialog with modern colloquialisms--"rat race," "walk the walk," "horny husbands," usually for the sake of an arresting rhyme--but none of this ever seems out of character. And it isn't as if the play itself has been reset in modern America. We are quite firmly in 1669 Paris, right down to the tight-sphinctered way the men bow.

Then there are the sumptuous costumes designed by Albert Tucci. Not only are they full and rich, but some carry wicked little touches. Consider how horribly mismatched Orgon's garments are; the effect isn't cartoonishly outlandish, but it is the 17th-century equivalent of mixing stripes, paisley and polka-dots. And why not? Orgon is a man of some refinement, but he's terribly confused. Then there's the bonnet of Dorine (spicily played by Julia Graham), the lady's maid to Orgon's daughter and one of the play's voices of reason. She's always butting into other people's business, so it makes sense that her headgear is fleecy, complete with little ram's horns.

Don't forget Orgon's daughter, Mariane, played with girlish vigor by Laine Peterson; her hairdo and her little trot call to mind an eager if none too smart cocker spaniel. Mariane's mother, Elmire (the elegant yet assertive Elizabeth Keller), sports a similar hairstyle, but on her, it evokes a regal standard poodle.

The cast is remarkably even, each actor firmly centered in his or her character and knowing just how to smooth over the couplets' line breaks. Brian Hendricks is foppish and officious but never malignant as Orgon, and Jonathan Hicks is a suitably smug and oily Tartuffe. Other significant roles are played with verve by Karole Spangler, Tim McKiernan, H. Michael Croner and Matthew Bowdren, the latter looking like a cross between the mustached Molière himself and Tim Curry.

Peter Beudert's set also deserves praise, simple as it is: a wide, curvaceous staircase emptying onto a platform supporting the all-important draped table for Orgon to hide under while he assimilates evidence from beyond. Call it an Orgon box. We're better off buying into Wilhelm Reich's notions of "life force energy" than we are trusting the self-serving pieties of a Tartuffe.