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Tartuffe

With the mega-churches, tax-free cash tsunamis, broadcasting empires, pastoral wealth, and flamboyant lifestyles of today's religious denominations and leaders, it's easy to take pot shots at the hypocrites and charlatans, but in Molière's day, brazen criticisms of the Church could bring dire consequences. Luckily, King Louis XIV loved Molière's comedies, which gave the playwright-actor a buffer while he rewrote passages to get past the censors.

Sam Gregory as Orgon
Sam Gregory as Orgon
Photo: Matthew Gale Photography 2016
Tartuffe is Molière's most direct assault on the Church and the clergy. Director Lynne Collins sets the play somewhere between the 17th and 21st centuries—depending upon the throwback textual references to medieval medicine and class rank versus the actors' use of WiFi, laptops, and cellphones—with an elegant set (Brian Mallgrave) and fun costumes (Clare Henkel) to match this flexible concept.

The wealthy Orgon (Sam Gregory) and his mother, Madame Pernelle (Leslie O'Carroll) have fallen under the influence of Tartuffe (Michael Morgan). To make matters worse, Orgon seeks to have Tartuffe marry his daughter, Mariane (Emily Van Fleet), who is already engaged to Valére (Anthony Adu). The rest of Orgon's family—his wife, Elmire (Kate Gleason), his son, Damis (Sean Scrutchins), his brother-in-law, Cléante (Josh Robinson), and his maid, Dorine (Jessica Austgen)—try to come up with a scheme to show him Tartuffe's duplicitous nature.

Kate Gleason as Elmire and Michael Morgan as Tartuffe
Kate Gleason as Elmire
and Michael Morgan as Tartuffe
Photo: Matthew Gale Photography 2016
Much like Shake-speare's Richard III or Iago, Molière's Tartuffe has a way of twisting what seem to be the most obvious transgressions into something quite natural and exemplary. And while we shake our heads at Orgon's and his mother's blindness, we need look no further than the current red-blue charade to see how many folks are taken in by similar illogic and sophistry.

Anthony Adu as Valère and Emily Van Fleet as Mariane
Anthony Adu as Valère
and Emily Van Fleet as Mariane
Photo: Matthew Gale Photography 2016
Morgan delights in the façade of Tartuffe's piety, mesmerizing his victims with high-sounding ideals and a black magician's body language. Gregory imbues Orgon with such wide-eyed and cheery naïveté that we cannot help but cluck at his gullibility, unaware that Molière is backing us into a corner where we will be forced to take a second look at the pontifications we so readily swallow.

Jessica Austgen as Dorine
Jessica Austgen as Dorine
Photo: Matthew Gale Photography 2016
Elmire bears the brunt of Tartuffe's lust. The arc of emotions Gleason brings to bear in this subplot is a delight, from the coy manipulation of his hunger to the fearful realization that she may have left herself physically vulnerable to his advances, just as Orgon has left his estate vulnerable to Tartuffe's greed.

All this leaves Orgon's children potentially out in the cold: Damis is faced with losing his inheritance while Mariane may be forced to abandon her dreams of a life with Valère. But both children are a bit remedial: Scrutchins' transformation, from impetuousness to defense of his family's estate is a beautiful testament to classical comedic form and to Molière's sense of proportion in that regard; i.e., the son assuming his responsibilities, much like Shake-speare's Hal does in Henry IV, Part II.

Leslie O'Carroll as Madame Pernelle and Josh Robinson as Cléante
Leslie O'Carroll as Madame Pernelle
and Josh Robinson as Cléante
Photo: Matthew Gale Photography 2016
Meanwhile. Mariane appears to be a few bricks short of a load—a wonderfully ditzy Emily Van Fleet—and needs help, which she gets from the feisty Dorine. Austgen is spicy as the saucy maid, driving Orgon to the defensive, much as Cléante uses logic to confound Orgon. Robinson's tongue-in-cheek equanimity stands apart—just as Molière intended, as this is the author's plea—underscored as Robinson's Cléante searches the audience for recognition that we understand this key point.

(Top to bottom) Sean Scrutchins as Damis and Michael Morgan as Tartuffe
(Top to bottom) Sean Scrutchins as
and Michael Morgan as Tartuffe
Photo: Matthew Gale Photography 2016
Finally, Valère and Madame Pernelle are also given the opportunity to show their mettle. O'Connell turns the matriarch 180 degrees without losing a beat, after finally listening to her son's (Orgon's) revelation regarding Tartuffe, while Adu infuses Valère with a surfeit of honor in showing him worthy of Orgon's complete embrace.

Despite all of this fine work, director Lynne Collins' altered ending destroys Molière's worldview and its classical symmetry, replacing it with a cynical judgment of "human nature," a dubious proposition at best. Perhaps it was the Chekhovian momentum of Internet age trappings—good for a laugh or two, as well as some distracting musical choices—that led to such an ill-considered re-write, twisting a classical comedy into a dark joke. And for what purpose? Are we, the audience, too dense to draw our own comparisons to contemporary issues while still holding out for a positive classical resolution?

The Arvada Center's presentation of Tartuffe runs through November 6th. For tickets: https://arvadacenter.org/tartuffe, or call 720-898-7200.

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