By PAM HARBAUGH
Talk about perfect timing. Melbourne Civic Theatre couldn’t have planned it better than to produce Moliere’s comedy about the hypocrisy of the pious than during this crazier than ever political season.
Although Moliere wrote this scathing satire more than 350 years ago, the truths in it remain sadly relevant to today’s society. In it, Tartuffe, a self-serving scoundrel, dresses in humble clothes and slips into the mantel of piety to win favor from Orgon, the patriarch of a rich family. While Orgon succumbs to Tartuffe’s hypocrisy, those with common sense are not fooled nor are they blinded by the image of the large wooden cross he wears.
The problem is, opening Orgon’s eyes so he will see for himself that Tartuffe is taking him for a fool.
While is the type of stuff that would find its way into a viral video, you can get the whole deal complete with intermission and that communal experience of shared laughter at Melbourne Civic Theatre’s raucous production.
Directed smartly by Peg Girard, the cast slips into this period style which is a cross between the slapstick born out of the common man’s commedia dell’arte and restoration style of mannered comedy that took bawdy pokes at aristocratic society. That means exaggerated acting style, ribald stage business and paper thin caricatures giving us black and white lessons about right and wrong.Mark Blackledge is a syrupy delight as Tartuffe, snickering one second and sighing with heavy heart the next. He and Christina LaFortune squeeze out every bit of juice in their scenes of seduction between Tartuffe and Orgon’s wife, Elmire. Ms. LaFortune is very funny in her role, reminding us of her excellence at physical comedy, especially that of a seductive nature.
Adrian Cahill (he’s so funny in that wig!) brings great bluster to Orgon, a man who swallows Tartuffe’s honeyed words. Here, Orgon is the perfect example of a person so happy to buy into comfort religiosity that he refuses to think for himself. Influencing Orgon is his ascetic mother, Madame Pernell, played with exacting sternness by Nelia Lake, who, dressed in forbidding black garb, whips up a fury of rigid adherence to cruel discipline. (How wonderful to see talented Ms. Lake’s return to Brevard’s stages.)
Orgon even promises to Tartuffe, the hand of his pert and weepy daughter, Mariane, expertly portrayed by Emily Pickens, although she’s in love with Valere, the always endearing Dan Wilkerson. Tracey Thompson is a no-nonsense joy as the buxom maid, Dorine, the wisest voice of the entire household. And Anthony DeTrano is positively hysterical as foppish Damis, Orgon’s son by a first marriage.
Rather than emphasizing the mid-17th century setting with rococo embellishment, the show’s production values are smartly simple, allowing the characters and their gorgeous costumes (designed by Ms. Girard) to form the visual banter, if you will. Alan Selby’s scenic and lighting design are understated but generous. That very first scene, where the cast enters the parlor is a sweet little moment — a pair of French doors open, revealing dramatic space that suggests that they have left a very large, grand room.
Don’t let the notion of a period piece, especially one written by someone named “Moliere,” scare you. This is very funny stuff. In it, you see the roots of situation comedy (think ‘Soap’), satire (think Bill Maher) and even slapstick (think ‘Three Stooges’). Yes it’s humor. And yes, it will make you think. Egad!
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Tartuffe” runs through April 24 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. It performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $23 to $25. Service fees for purchasing tickets with credit cards. Call 321-723-6935, visit MyMCT.org or click onto their ad on the right side of this page.