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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Hypocrisy à l’Anglais

Posted By on Wed, Jun 8, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Collaborative Arts Theatre, their Charlotte Shakespeare Festival, and Chad Calvert have all been down this path before under the stars at The Green. Just two years ago, the Festival kicked off with the Bard’s Twelfth Night, featuring Calvert as the Puritan zealot Malvolio. Now Collaborative is presenting a darker, more devilish five-act comedy, Molière’s Tartuffe, and the mellow-voiced Calvert is back, spouting pious platitudes in the title role.

Better yet, because Tartuffe was written in French, everything the villainous hypocrite says has been translated into English, courtesy of Ranjit Bolt. We weren’t nearly so lucky with Malvolio, who spoke in the foreign language known as Shakespeare’s blank verse.

Bolt’s translation, like its distinguished predecessor by Richard Wilbur, maintains the elegant couplet form of the original 1669 script (the comedy was banned twice – in 1664 and 1667 – before Molière was able to appease King Louis XIV and the prudes of the Académie Française), so the atmosphere of centuries-old formality is never frittered away, no matter how bawdy the action becomes. Dividends arrive early with Corlis Hayes, as Madame Pernelle, spouting all kinds of Tartuffery in an epic denunciation of worldliness.

Corruption lurks everywhere in the eyes of Pernelle, who follows Tartuffe’s precepts as blindly as her son Orgon, the master of the house. Sauciest of all is Orgon’s housemaid, Dorine, played with a mischievous zest by Meghan Lowther in peak form. Barbi Van Schaick, an equally pesky Dorine way back in her college days, now suffers Pernelle’s comprehensive opprobrium as her daughter-in-law Elmire, while Tom Ollis, as Elmire’s brother Cléante, is more openly mocking and contemptuous toward both the besotted Orgon and his sermonizing mom.

Two sacrificial lambkins tenderize the plot, for while Tartuffe is not above aspiring to the carnal pleasures afforded by his benefactor’s wife, the hypocrite eyes Orgon’s daughter Mariane as the true gateway to inheriting his dupe’s fortune. But the dutiful Mariane is already betrothed to the dashing Valère, and their ardor for one another is nicely spiced by their quarreling when, breaking his word, Orgon decrees that Mariane must wed the loathsome Tartuffe. The aftermath of this decree, with Dorine tormenting Mariane and the lovebirds tormenting each other, is the most delightful comic stuff, and the chemistry between Karina Roberts-Caporino and Brian Seagroves is as fizzy and intoxicating as champagne – with Lowther standing by to make sure the squabbling lovers don’t break up.

At the eye of all these storms over love and money, Calvert is the model of equanimity as Tartuffe. Two full acts of the script are spent sketching his villainy before he actually appears, and we can’t help being impressed – and appalled – when his impudent sangfroid proves him to be even more formidable than reported. Caught in the act of trying to seduce Elmire, Tartuffe turns the situation upside-down with a marvelous display of serenity. Of course, Calvert’s calm wouldn’t count for nearly as much were it not in powerful contrast to the vengeful rage of Orgon’s son, Damis, after catching the interloper in the midst of his amorous overtures. Zack Byrd puts more than enough childishness in Damis’s towering rage to make him adorable.

Most responsible for keeping the Tartuffe kerfuffle percolating is Orgon, of course, whom I’ve seen played as block-stupid or as terminally soft-hearted. Joe Copley, under Elise Wilkinson’s direction, finds a different way, endowing Orgon with an outward steadfastness and serenity that is forever being undermined by the true impatience and capriciousness that lurk underneath. Hooray for victimhood, for this is easily Copley’s best stage work to date, and the fun begins as he tries to maintain order in his household in the face of Lowther’s saucy, implacable challenges as Doreen. Toward Tartuffe, Orgon is blindly yet anxiously enthralled, for nobody except his mother seems to have grasped his greatness.

Directing on The Green for her sixth year, Wilkinson has learned that less is more. She mics her cast with a slickness, courtesy of Total Event Production, that the folk over at CP Summer Theatre can only envy – even though these outdoor players are buffeted by the elements. Chastened by scenery that was blown about in previous seasons (I remember an actress having to prop up a door she was to walk through), Wilkinson uses the minimum and makes sure it’s sturdy. Little more is needed than two archways for entrances and the requisite table for the rollicking discovery scene. They have to hazard a tablecloth there, but I’d guess the effect would be more hilarious if the wind blew away Orgon’s cover.

Obeying the dictates of the Académie Française, Molière cleaves to the classical unities of time and space. So actors aren’t materializing around the picnicking audience as they were in former years, simulating the broader Shakespearean landscape. And we always know where the actors are, since the fine sound system isn’t misdirecting us. Except for one incursion by Doreen into the audience, all the action is circumscribed in front of us like a conventional stage. Results are the better than ever at The Green, where admission is free throughout the run, ending on June 19. They suggest a five-dollar donation after the show ends, but tickets to this production would be a steal at five times that price.

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