Any production of Tartuffe is immediately up against it. First, it isn’t English. Second, it’s old. Third, it’s satire. Any one of these factors is usually sufficient to keep people away in droves.
Tartuffe is a French neoclassical play. Written in alexandrines, strictly obeying the “Three Unities” à la mode de Castelvetro, it is quite unlike anything familiar to most theatergoers. In order to translate it into English for a modern American audience, one must choose not only between meaning and sound, prose and poetry, but also between spirit and accuracy, idiom and trope.
Taproot Theatre here have chosen sound. Just as virtually everyone else in the United States these days, their production uses the Richard Wilbur translation of the play with its rhymed heroic couplets. I have read this version multiple times in my head and out loud, and I have seen multiple productions that use it. I hold the same impressions of it now as I did when I first read it: I don’t like it. It has an irritating singsong quality and is altogether too quaint and slickly affected when it isn’t leaden. I have yet to hear a production that has staged it convincingly, and Taproot’s is no exception.
Further aggravating the problem is a weakness of American acting in general and here in particular: handling poetic verse. Director Karen Lund’s solution to this is to elide the problem by accelerating the pace. The speech should be natural—as natural as French nobility ever can be. Yet naturalness requires inhabiting the words, not simply rushing through them. Throughout the actors sound as though they are in a hurry to get to the ends of their speeches and on to the next one. It is unconvincing and a dreadful waste of effort.
The actors handle this in various ways. Ryan Childers and Jesse Notehelfer are so adept at handling the verse and pace that one could only wish they were on stage more often. So, too, with Nathan Jeffrey. Charissa Adams as Mariane and Charity Parenzini as Dorine seem comfortable with the verse, but the pace brings out a certain weakness in their voices, which by intermission start to drop off in strength. Solomon Davis seems comfortable with the pace but has problems with the verse. Frank Lawler, by contrast, sometimes seems in another play altogether. His handling of the verse as Tartuffe tends to be quite unemphatic, at times bodiless, and at times he changes the pace of the play unpleasantly. Yes, it’s satire. Yes, it’s comedy. Yes, one must “deliberately overshoot the mark,” as Aristotle would put it. Nevertheless there are clear lines between a comedy of manners, a satire and a travesty.
I do not think this is completely on Mr. Lawler’s shoulders. To some degree, Tartuffe should stop the show at moments. Certainly when he first enters is one of these times (Mark Lund’s stage design here weakens this effect by making Tartuffe enter on a diagonal that points away from the audience). When he announces his plan to bring down Orgon’s house also qualifies. But at almost all other times, the touch needs to be lighter. The first two acts develop Tartuffe and his effect upon the entire cast without his ever being present; the psychological presence of his character permeates every action of the play. Molière’s writing cuts quickly and decisively like the point of an épée. Needless, then, to drive it home with a shillelagh. Here it is not quite a shillelagh that drives it home, perhaps, but certainly a very firm cane.
It is one of Karen Lund’s few flaws in this production. For the most part, Ms. Lund deftly avoids most of the cardinal sins of staging “old plays”: she ensures that the actors do not fall in love with the sounds of their own voices, eliminates the faux Oxbridge accents and keeps actors from standing stiffly still. Her reading of the play is very respectful and, rare in Seattle theater, also quite thoughtful. She clearly has the support of her cast, and though there are times where I wish she would rein them in, as an ensemble their work is strong. Whatever my complaints about certain individual decisions, her approach strikes me as direct and fresh. If only all “revivals” of classic plays had such freshness of approach and thoughtful respect given to their direction, more people would consider classic theater something actually to be enjoyed, rather than simply tolerated.
The problems of handling classical texts correctly remain synonymous with the problems of handling the latest and hottest new property. Watching a classic play one will see all the strengths and faults of the contemporary stage as well. The tendency of actors to overplay what should be subtler, the failure of directors to distinguish character from caricature, the weakness of both in handling a poetic style in the theater—these are the exact same problems that will rear their heads in a production a play by Sarah Ruhl or Scot Augustson or Ki Gottberg. They are less noticeable in productions of the latter playwrights because there is no history of proper production, no guidebook as it were, while anyone visiting the Comédie-Française can witness actors performing exactly the same gestures actors used over three hundred years ago. But they just as surely remain. Solving the puzzle of producing classic theater effectively is a good start to reforming the lackadaisical production of contemporary plays as well. The Taproot Theatre production of Tartuffe is a good start. It is not perfect but it is excellent and that is good enough—for now.