"Tartuffe or the Imposter"
Yale Repertory Theatre
Moliere’s classic comedy “Tartuffe” has been turned on its head. The current Yale Rep production takes considerable liberties, not with the text, but with the staging. An on-stage video cameraman continually films the actors, even when they are secluded in hidden rooms. This is both good news and bad news. On the one hand, the faces flashed on screen allow the play of emotions to be seen clearly. The intimacy of the camera lets the audience in on every nuance. On the other hand, the presence of television is a distraction, taking away from the purity of the text.
Director Daniel Fish has chosen to bring this 1666 play into the 21st century with modern technology, mixing closed-circuit television with live performances. Whether or not the results are desirable, Alexandra Eaton must be commended for her video design. The designers, too, mix the past with the present, both Kaye Voyce (costumes) and John Conklin (set).Conklin, in fact, splits the stage in two—one side vintage Louis XIV French, the other slick, streamlined, modern.
“Tartuffe,” like most Moliere comedies, focuses on one character trait—in this case, religious hypocrisy. Orgon, master of the house, has been totally duped by Tartuffe, whom he had taken in as a beggar. Gradually, Tartuffe steals away Orgon’s house, his worldly goods, and, very nearly, his wife and daughter. It takes a major revelation for Orgon to recognize his own gullibility.
Fish’s particular staging is intended to show that “Tartuffe” is indeed a contemporary play. Hypocrisy, power struggles, or stupidity never go out of style, nor does the role of religion in society.
But “Tartuffe” needs no high-tech devices to bring it into this century. Moliere’s beloved play can stand on its own, particularly when the translation is the Richard Wilbur version. Wilbur’s funny, delicious rhymes capture the Moliere feeling, never missing a beat nor slowing the action.
The sizeable cast of players also proves to be a mixed bag. Several actors give strong performances, while others fade into the woodwork or screech their ways to oblivion. Best of this ensemble is Zach Grenier, who comes through both on-screen and on-stage, creating an oily, smarmy Tartuffe. Sally Wingert as Dorine the maid, with her strong stage presence and infallible comic timing, is equally competent. And Beth Dixon gets all the best lines as matriarch of the family and makes the most of them. Finally, Michelle Beck, as the much-wronged daughter, sounds a delicious note of poignancy, contrasting with the comic shenanigans of others.
In all, Fish’s use of closed-circuit television is indeed intriguing, but it brings no new depth to the play, and is, ultimately, only a clever gimmick.
-- -Irene Backalenick
December 8, 2007