I have had my bad times at the Shakespeare Festival in Central Park: I have been bored, annoyed, disgruntled, and exasperated. But it remained for Mark Brokaw’s production of Tartuffe to make me leave at intermission disgusted. Molière wrote a high comedy in exquisite verse; Richard Wilbur magically transmuted it into equally lovely English dramatic poetry. What Brokaw, who has shown great skill with contemporary plays both comic and serious, gives us is the lowest kind of farce, performed by actors, some of whom can do much better, carrying on like vulgar mountebanks, if not, worse yet, schoolchildren imitating vulgar mountebanks.
Every conceivable offense against wit, style, taste, and common sense is perpetrated here in the rankest fashion, with a lack of period sense, despite the period costumes, that only church-mouse-poor judgment can muster. So we are confronted with two pairs of siblings – a white Orgon and black Cléante, a white Mariane and black Damis – who do not remotely convey a sense of family. Most egregious is the Damis of Curtis McClarin, who wears no wig over his close-cropped head, has an earring in one ear, speaks street English, does some freakish contortions, and looks and behaves like a poor imitation of Eddie Murphy. As Cléante, Wendell Pierce rattles off his lines in a curious singsong, pulls dumb faces, and, paunchy and befuddled, is a poor idea of a raisonneur.
The ingénue, Mariane, is played by Danielle Ferland, who has a chubby, pug-nosed face and a high-pitched, faintly Dogpatchy voice, and outpouts a pouter pigeon. As the smart, witty maid, Dorine, Mary Testa has an even shriller voice with which to belabor our hearing, turning our eardrums into blackboards across which she runs her words like fingernails. She hams for all her girth is worth, rolls her eyes like runaway billiard balls, and gives new dimensions to the notion of obnoxiousness. J. Smith-Cameron, a usually competent actress, enacts Elmire, Orgon’s wife and Tartuffe’s lust object, as a grown woman aspiring to become a nymphet, and some of the business (e.g., eating) that Brokaw has given her makes her look even more foolish.
Christopher Duva, as Valère, Mariane’s lover, seems to have just drifted in from the nearest gay bar, and often sulks and postures like a constipated gazelle. Charles Kimbrough plays Orgon as a senescent halfwit, with a ludicrously mincing walk, a preposterous puppet-show voice, and a gaze that cannot quite choose between squinty and bug-eyed. Most embarrassing is Dylan Baker’s Tartuffe, leering and stridulous, oozing smarminess too rancid to fool anyone at Orgon and comic-book lechery at Elmire that should reduce any woman to giggles. His hypocrisy is merely doltish, his menace no more threatening than a baby’s fist. He is given to promenading on Orgon’s hypertrophic banquet table, from beneath which his hidden servant sometimes extrudes a stepladder to facilitate his master’s ascent.
Tawdry yet simplistic costumes by Jess Goldstein, adequate but unresourceful décor by Riccardo Hernández (an eavesdropper must emerge from an improbable trapdoor), and overamplified pseudo-baroque music by John Gromada compete for our inattention. Brokaw’s staging does the rest. Only Dana Ivey, as the old scold Pernelle, is persuasive, so that a character whose departure we can hardly wait for in other productions here leaves all too soon, taking Molière with her.
The groundlings, to be sure, have a ball, and might like a better production much less. Still, if the only way you can sell – I mean, with free seating, give away – the classics is by travestying them, why bother? Instead of insulting the illustrious dead, why not make the riffraff happier with contemporary farces by Ken Ludwig and Larry Shue?