by Hugh Hunter
“Tartuffe” (1664) by Moliere is an enduring masterpiece of comedy. Directed by Rhonda Goldstein, the current revival at Stagecrafters, 8130 Germantown Ave., is skilled, zesty and, above all, respectful.
(Molière, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in 1622, was influenced by the farcical style of the Italian “commedia dell’arte” in his use of social satire and lots of broad physicality. The first performances of “Tartuffe,” though well received by audiences, met with condemnation from officials due to its mocking of religiosity.)
The title character Tartuffe is a scoundrel who feigns religious piety to advance himself. Though nearly everyone sees through him, he takes in the patriarch Orgon to the point that Tartuffe threatens to marry Orgon’s daughter, bed his wife Elmire and steal the family estate.
I could never understand the urge to stage classic plays in modern venues; Goldstein has clearly thought this over. Her funny and thoughtful “Tartuffe” is staged in Paris of the 1640s and uses the Richard Wilbur translation that recreates Moliere’s rhyming couplets in English.
She fleshes out the production with a suggestive yet spacious set (Richard Stewart), eye-catching costumes (Jen Adams, Janet Gilmore, Lisa Miller, Susan Mooers) and a harpsichord sound design (Bill Bansbach).
The play has too many characters to reference here. Some are played in an over-the-top farcical vein, most notably Orgon (Richard Geller), who comically jerks about like a puppet on a string. He pretty much is a puppet since the master of this house is a virtual court jester.
But if all characters were handled this way, we would have a draining play full of one-dimensional fools. (Some “Tartuffe” productions have done just that.) Here, the farcical ones contrast with others who are dramatically complicated, most notably Elmire and Tartuffe.
In her portrayal of Elmire, Pierlisa Chiodo-Steo pulls out all the stops. Seemingly endless waves of conflicting emotion wash over her face as Elmire conspires to defend self and family.
Christian Lepore plays Tartuffe with resourceful economy, and the guy turns out to have all the watchful shrewdness you would expect from a con artist. As Orgon hides under a table, the final cat-and-mouse scene between Tartuffe and Elmire is too funny for words.
In his scorn for religious flimflam, Moliere only kept his head (in real life) by currying favor in high places. He is Tartuffe-like himself when he ties up loose ends in this play with a ‘deus ex machina’ character who depicts the king (by implication, Louis XIV) as perfectly wise and just.
This play is as “relevant” as it gets. We still see Tartuffes all around us, hiding behind a professed idealism of one sort or another so as to prey upon the gullible. And to be honest, friend, there is (hopefully at a minor level) some small deceit and gullibility in you and me (well, at least in you).
Moliere was the real man of piety, tempered by wit and reason, and his “Tartuffe” is magnificent hyperbole. If you already know the play, the elegant and respectful Stagecrafters production will only make you like it more.
“Tartuffe” will run at Stagecrafters through July 1. For more information or reservations, call 215-247-9913.