Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Tartuffe
Sitting under the towering magnolia of the Reynolds Tavern courtyard, I sip a spiked summer Tavern Tea and munch fried green tomatoes with shrimp and corn relish, all the enticement I need to come out on a warm weeknight. But there’s more. Listening to the gentle strains of a harpsichord, I am transported back in time — way back to 1664 for Moliere’s Tartuffe, the Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s first production in the new Comedy in the Courtyard series.
Fast and frivolous fun is promised, but I’m skeptical. Moliere? Really? Then the music stops, and director Sally Boyett-D’Angelo has the players charge into our midst all aflutter with gossip and curses, wheedling the audience into their shtick, and I know I was wrong to doubt. This is better than front row seats at a trial, better than ringside at the fights, better than a boudoir keyhole. It’s all three at once and so close the actors reach out and touch me.
Louis XIV found this bawdy satire of blind faith “très boffo” until the Catholic Church made him ban it on the grounds of moral turpitude. Modern audiences will find it just as amusing. Tartuffe or The Impostor touches on eternal themes like seduction and resistance, parental dictates and pouty children, lovers’ quarrels and interminable goodbyes, while relating the timeless story of a con man in clerical collar: a self-confessed scoundrel, whore’s son, beggar, louse, hypocrite, cheat and liar.
The noble Orgon (Alex Foley) is so hoodwinked by the poseur Tartuffe (Stephen Horst) that he promises his daughter Marianne (Alyssa Bouma) in marriage. Of all the household, only his mother, Mme. Pernelle (Horst in drag), finds this a good idea. Marianne, already engaged to Valere (Michael Ryan Neely), is inconsolable. Her maid Dorine (Lauren Turchin) mocks the master’s stupidity behind his back. Orgon’s wife Elmire (also played by Turchin), who has been dodging Tartuffe’s advances, is sickened by her husband’s insensitivity. Orgon’s brother-in-law Cleante (Grayson Owen) is drunk with disgust and greed. When Orgon’s son Damis (also played by Owen) is disinherited for voicing objections, the family plots to make Orgon witness to Tartuffe’s seduction of his wife. That’s when the fun really begins.
The campy romp that brings the story to a head, so to speak, is just one of many overplayed gags, but it all works in the exaggerated style of the period. Likewise, the dated language works because Timothy Mooney’s clever translation of the French rhyming couplets pokes gentle fun at Moliere’s poetic form with forced rhymes the actors speak with exaggerated delivery and physicality.
All but two players are double or triple cast, which, after some confusion, works with the aid of accents and props thanks to the talents of four stars from Annapolis Shakespeare Company's recent Pride and Prejudice: the serious Owen and snide Turchin (P&P’s Mr. and Miss Bingley); the dashing Neely (Darcy); and the ingénue Bouma (Jane). Horst, the two-faced man of the cloth who sports a stained cravat to match his stained soul, is the star of the show, with Foley acting as his buffoonish foil.
The action unfolds quickly in this 40-minute script, stretched to an hour and a quarter with two breaks. Despite the outdoor environment, the actors are audible with distant birdsong and church bells enhancing the atmosphere. Traffic is distant enough so as not to be a distraction.
Despite Moliere’s reputation as highbrow art, this lowbrow spoof is delightful summer fun. Come early to enjoy the Happy Hour Specials and mellow into the mood for some melodrama.