Sunday, April 27, 2003

CSF's 'Tartuffe' stumbles about in its darkness

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival has decided to explore the dark side of Moliere's comedy masterpiece Tartuffe. More accurately, the festival decided to impose a deeper darkness on it.

Big mistake.

Moliere's specialty was writing riotously funny social and religious criticism. He was a Geiger counter for hypocrisy and his astute mockery reached a pinnacle in this tale of a scam artist who uses false piety to dupe a petty bourgeois fellow, almost succeeding in winning everything of any importance, from his estate to his daughter's hand to his wife's virtue.

It's all pretty straightforward. Tartuffe is a criminally minded opportunist who doesn't let his victim see his true nature too soon; his dupe Orgon is a blustering fool. The brains of the household is saucy maid Dorine (the delightfully sassy Ghillian Porter.)

But director Brian Isaac Phillips doesn't see it that way. In this contemporary telling (with Zack Brown's best set design to date suggesting a Hyde Park dining room), Matt Johnson, looking vaguely like an Elvis impersonator, plays Tartuffe big, bigger, biggest starting with his initial, Kramer-like slide into view.

Nick Rose isn't blustery as Orgon; he's mean and near-apoplectic.

They both carry out their jobs well. The problem is, when you raise the Cruelty Factor, you stop being funny. You also set off an entire chain reaction that has to be addressed, but isn't.

This disagreeable Orgon, who doesn't flinch at banishing his loving son (Reginald Jernigan), would surely fire his back-talking maid. And why does his family love him?

For everything that works - the seduction scene between Johnson and Corinne Mohlenhoff as Orgon's long-suffering wife, for instance, there are five things that don't. How much funnier it would have been if we'd been allowed to witness Orgon's reactions, crouched conveniently under the table being used in lieu of a bed.

For that matter, why is everybody always drinking martinis? They're not a martini crowd.

Is Christopher Guthrie's character supposed to be fussily gay? Then why not consistently?

Back on the plus side, Taylore Mahogany Scott and Jeremy Aggers are a fine, energetic pairing as Orgon's Valley Girl daughter and her noble and love-besotted swain.

Tartuffe, through May 11, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, 381-2273.

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CSF's 'Tartuffe' stumbles about in its darkness