“Hang up my hair shirt,” commands the titular character when he finally enters Court Theatre’s stylish telling of Molière’s 17th century French comedy “Tartuffe.” It’s a funny line that encapsulates the character’s hypocrisy (the play’s subtitle is “The Impostor”): Tartuffe (Philip Earl Johnson in a long white ponytail) is the consummate sleazebag, a swindler in the cloak of piety. Why wait so long for him to appear? The character’s delayed entrance telegraphs his relative unimportance. What matters in “Tartuffe” is not Tartuffe himself but how the other characters respond to him.
Those responses fall into two opposing categories: those who immediately see through Tartuffe — nearly everyone — and those who do not. The latter category includes only two characters. One is Orgon (A.C. Smith), the wealthy master of the estate (relocated and updated to a mansion in Hyde Park/Kenwood — with tasteful scenic design by John Culbert that erupts in a designer pillow fight at one point). The other is Orgon’s mother, Madame Pernelle (a cross-dressed Allen Gilmore, who says on the theater’s website he is channeling Marlene Dietrich and Tammy Faye Bakker, an apt description).
The other characters put a lot of comic elbow grease into exposing Tartuffe to Orgon and his mother, and eventually they succeed. But in the end the joke may be on them: perhaps the reason they see Tartuffe’s flaws so clearly is that they share them. It takes one (bunch of debauched money-grubbers) to know one.
Close on the French heels of “The Misanthrope,” Part I of Court Theatre’s Molière festival, “Tartuffe” shares with the earlier production its deft direction by Charles Newell and much of the mostly African American cast. Both plays are successes — and funnier than any contemporary comedies I can think of — and it is a delight to see the talented cast in new roles, sometimes trading off principal parts for lesser ones — while milking those lesser roles for all they are worth.
Patrese D. McClain proves herself to be a sexy comedienne as Orgon’s wife, Elmire. Smith brings the necessary gravitas to Orgon. Gilmore gets laughs by playing the female part straight in a falsetto voice. Grace Gealey, looking like a Barbie doll in a pink tulle skirt (costume design by Jacqueline Firkins), pouts convincingly as Orgon’s daughter, Mariane, condemned by her father to wed middle-aged Tartuffe as she pines for young Valère (Travis Turner). It’s a tossup as to which of the young lovers is more immature, although that distinction may go to Mariane’s brother, Damis (Dominique Worsley).
Stealing the show is Elizabeth Ledo as Dorine, Mariane’s lady’s-maid. Wearing enormous hoop earrings to accessorize her maid’s uniform, Ledo spits out her tart lines with a Slavic accent. Erik Hellman, as Tartuffe’s valet Laurent, looks as if he strayed off the set of “The Book of Mormon.” Michael Pogue and Desmond Gray fill out the cast.
Contributing to the production’s success, as it did to “The Misanthrope,” is Richard Wilbur’s lively translation of Moliére’s alexandrines. The rhyming couplets include a few new twists this time around. Where else but Court Theatre would the Dalai Lama and Obama come together as poetic partners?
2 hours, 15 minutes
Through July 21, 2013
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago (on the University of Chicago campus, with free parking in a garage next door to the theater)
Tickets $45 – $65 (senior and student discounts available): (773) 753-4472 or www.CourtTheatre.org
Photos: Michael Brosilow