Chicago Theater Review: TARTUFFE (Court Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 29, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of TARTUFFE at the Court Theatre.Because religious hypocrisy — specifically “affected zeal and pious knavery” — never goes out of fashion, Tartuffe is forever. Continuing and completing its Moliere Festival (which ends on Bastille Day), Court Theatre’s second offering is the master’s perennially popular “home invasion” comedy. In this domestic dust-up, the title fraud insinuates himself into Orgon’s formerly happy family. Tartuffe (oily and histrionic Philip Earl Johnson) flim-flams the cluelessly credulous Orgon (rubber-faced A.C. Smith, splenetic with wrong-headed righteousness), exploiting the sucker’s religiosity in a virtual festival of chicanery.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of TARTUFFE at the Court Theatre.Eager to pander to this prudish protector, Orgon destroys the engagement of his daughter Marianne (Grace Gealey, reinventing the ingénue) to her insecure lover Valere (Travis Turner, bending to every breeze). Orgon instead declares that Tartuffe will marry Marianne. Then, refusing to believe that Tartuffe has attempted to cuckold him with his lovely wife Elmire (salacious Patrese D. McClain), the dupe goes so far as to disinherit his accusing son Damis (Dominique Worsley) and even to deed all of Orgon’s property and wealth to the unscrupulous charlatan. Quickly enough, a seeming comedy turns into a near tragedy. When disloyal Tartuffe’s non-negotiable lust, the sexual harassment of his patron’s wife, and the villain’s overall blatant hypocrisy are finally exposed, it’s too late for Orgon to get back what he foolishly gave away.

Only a deus ex machina resolution provides a conditionally happy ending. But in the final tableau, director Charles Newell implies that Orgon’s family will never be whole again. The memory of how an imposter almost destroyed their collective and Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of TARTUFFE at the Court Theatre.individual happiness will not recede quickly.

Newell’s modern-dress staging is set in Hyde Park/Kenwood, the very privileged University of Chicago neighborhood where the theater is located. Other than convincing an audience that the crisis is current (and Richard Wilbur’s superb translation is persuasive enough), the catered setting doesn’t matter. Happily, the acting nails the indictment, as Martin Luther did his declaration of independence to the church at Worms.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of TARTUFFE at the Court Theatre.Juicy tours de force abound: Elizabeth Ledo’s spitfire depiction of the sassy and delightfully insubordinate maid Dorine, Erik Hellman’s sly turn as Tartuffe’s treacherous valet, Michael Pogue’s ardent take on the rational brother Cleante, and, especially, Allen Gilmore’s triumphant drag role as Orgon’s fundamentalist-mongering mother, the church lady from hell.

Unfortunately, Court’s Tartuffe is not the triumph that was its predecessor The Misanthrope – and not just because the latter comedy’s attack on the dangers of too much truth-telling verges on tragedy and thus feels more universal in its application to all audiences. This time Newell sets a slower pace, drawing or dragging out the comic clashes, then sealing the deal with a clincher sight gag. If very little has been cut from a classic script, it’s even more imperative that the action be brisker than this patience-testing but recommended two-and-a-half-hour span.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of TARTUFFE at the Court by Michael Brosilow

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue
scheduled to end on July 14, 2013
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