by David A. Rosenberg
Welcome to envy and avariciousness. In the black comedy production of Moliere’s “Tartuffe” at Westport Country Playhouse, a religious zealot pretends to be noble and moral in a work that transcends time: Although the act curtain shows 17th-century Paris, the production is in modern dress. Director David Kennedy emphasizes the play’s darkness and its underlying anger, bringing it squarely into the present. Then as now, religious fundamentalism is sometimes used to strangle discourse but, like reformers everywhere, Moliere’s mockery got him into hot water with church and state.
Center to the action is the supposedly ascetic but actually randy Tartuffe, hair shirt and scourge in hand, insinuating himself into head-of-household Orgon’s graces. Though Tartuffe covets his duped host’s money, wife and daughter, others, mainly the servant Dorine, are not fooled.
Kennedy uses Richard Wilbur’s brilliant verse translation to good effect, making many of the rhymes into telling plot points, such as “piety / hypocrisy.” He does wonders with a piece of licorice and gets a good laugh out of Tartuffe’s cradling Orgon as if he were an infant.
But the director has a heavy hand in the first act, where the Tartuffe of that fine actor, Marc Kuidisch, is too obviously cunning, taking charge through force not insinuation. Not only is the comedy tamped down but a three-year-old would see through the character’s postures.
Still, by the second act, things begin to click, climaxing in the delicious table scene where Tartuffe’s perfidy is unmasked. The consternation that follows as the family faces ruin is also effective, although the use of a stun gun to immobilize Tartuffe is shocking in all the wrong ways. More, putting a hood over his face deprives the family and us of his ultimate degradation.
Jeanine Serralles is a pert Dorine, while Nadia Bowers is playful as Orgon’s wife, Elmire. As his mother, Patricia Connolly wrestles her exposition-heavy role to the ground, while Tyrone Mitchell Henderson is impressive as the reasonable Cleante, Elmire’s brother, and Mark Nelson is a properly whiny Orgon who finally turns the tables on his tormentor.
Seeing a production about envy and anger on the weekend of the Aurora massacre gives pause. Luckily, amusement reigns and no one gets shot.