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Moliere’s ‘Tartuffe’ still rings true, 350 years later

Journal Correspondent

Frank Wood and Brett Gelman in “Tartuffe.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson

NOVEMBER 30, 2017 – BOSTON – There are religious leaders – some seemingly devoutly Christian, some supposedly Orthodox Jewish – who manipulate wealthy benefactors or take advantage of innocent young protégés. To borrow from Moliere, such so-called spiritual mentors virtually throw the Ten Commandments out the proverbial window as they prey on vulnerable disciples.

The great 17th century French playwright’s Bible-influenced insights in his masterwork, “Tartuffe” – first produced in 1664 – prove just as telling in the current era of sexual abuse at some Catholic churches and Hasidic study houses as they must have been in his own time.

Now Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Peter DuBois is giving timely, fresh expression to Moliere’s cautionary play in an earnest and sometimes witty translation by Ranjit Bolt, complete with eight-syllable verse and some sharp rhyming. While a partial updating of this satire – with cellphone props, for example, and Anita Yavich’s largely modern dress costume design – has its limitations, DuBois’ tightrope-like attempt to move between the age of Louis XIV and the present often succeeds.

While the talented Alexander Dodge bridges very different centuries with a white- and gold-dominated set that calls to mind the opulence of that leader of France also known as the Sun King, Moliere’s play depends mostly on the connection or disconnection of Tartuffe and an easily duped wealthy gentleman named Orgon. The opportunistic title character means to ingratiate himself with Orgon and eventually marry his daughter, Mariane, whose heart belongs to her fiancé, Valere.

Several members of Orgon’s family are savvy enough to see through double-dealing Tartuffe where Orgon does not. The most formidable opponent, Orgon’s second wife Elmire, fittingly prepares to outwit Tartuffe with a deception of her own, one that will expose him as a concealed Orgon watches. That deception reveals Tartuffe’s brazen readiness to violate such commandments as the injunctions against adultery, stealing, and coveting.

Jewish actor-comedian Brett Gelman as Tartuffe, sporting a thick beard and often wearing a large black fez and matching black attire, can seem like a cross between a Middle Eastern sage and a New Age guru. Gelman may brandish a crucifix, but sometimes suggests a Hasidic leader in his demeanor and gesturing. Audience members may differ as to whether his Tartuffe is elusive enough as he fools Orgon. Still, his timing and physical comedy gifts do a lot to make his performance convincing.

By contrast, Broadway veteran Frank Wood as Orgon has the right obstinacy defending Tartuffe, but could do with more fire during his sillier moments.

Jewish choreographer Daniel Pelzig’s hand seems evident in Tartuffe’s dance-like capering around Orgon. Pelzig also enhances the moves of Orgon’s blood relatives and in-laws as they react to Tartuffe, his ideas, and his actions. The closing dance ensemble smartly contrasts with the opening stylized expository moves of the characters.

Melissa Miller captures Elmire’s tenacity in dealing with Tartuffe’s duplicity. Matthew J. Harris has Elmire’s brother Cleante’s mix of acerbic observations and brotherly caring. Paula Plum is properly domineering and suspicious as Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother. Jane Pfitsch finds all of maid Dorine’s perceptiveness.

Moliere’s play looks to a time when truth will overcome deception. If Huntington’s “Tartuffe” is not a theatrical paradise on earth, DuBois and company do make it diverting.

“Tartuffe,” Huntington Theatre Company, Main Stage, Avenue of the Arts and South End, through Dec. 10. Call 617-266-0800 or visit huntington­theatre.org.

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