Centenary Stage Company revisits Molière’s wry and still-relevant comedy, ‘Tartuffe’

tartuffe review

From left, Carl Wallnau, Nick Bettens and Randall Duk Kim co-star in “Tartuffe,” which The Centenary Stage Company will present in Hackettstown through March 3.

It almost seems like Orgon, a rich 17th century Parisian, has joined a cult. Tartuffe — considered to be an odious conman by practically everyone else in Orgon’s household — has somehow convinced Orgon that he is a pillar of piety. And Orgon won’t be swayed, even when faced with damning evidence.

Even when Tartuffe tries to seduce Orgon’s wife Elmire and Orgon finds out — and Tartuffe confesses to his own outrageous behavior! — Orgon remains a true believer, imagining a conspiracy meant to ruin the poor, persecuted Tartuffe. He says, stunningly:

Yes, all of you — wife, children, servants, all —
Conspire against him and desire his fall,
Employing every shameful trick you can
To alienate me from this saintly man.
Ah, but the more you seek to drive him away,
The more I’ll do to keep him …

It does not take much effort to see “Tartuffe” — Molière’s classic 1664 comedy, which The Centenary Stage Company is currently presenting at The Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown — as being painfully relevant to 21st century American politics.

Diana Cherkas and Randall Duk Kim play Elmire and Orgon in “Tartuffe.”

On the other hand, there really is no need for such a topical interpretation. “Tartuffe” is, as always, a delight on its own terms, succeeding as both a frantic farce and a wry commentary on human nature. I couldn’t stop marveling at Molière’s sustained wit, through the nearly 1,000 rhymed couplets that make up the entirety of the play’s text (this production uses Richard Wilbur’s deft 1967 French-to-English translation).

It is a credit to the dozen or so actors who have speaking roles in this production that they make it through these torrents of rhymes — many of which constitute long speeches — with barely a stumble.

This is a handsome, traditional production, with the husband-and-wife-team of Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso co-directing and also playing two of the meatiest roles, Orgon and the servant Dorine. The latter functions as the voice of reason throughout all the play’s shenanigans, insisting, for instance, in regard to petty gossip, that …

Those who have greatest cause for guilt and shame
Are quickest to besmirch a neighbor’s name.
When there’s a chance for libel, they never miss it;
When something can be made to seem illicit
They’re off at once to spread the joyous news,
Adding to fact what fantasies they choose.

Centenary Stage Company artistic director Carl Wallnau seems to relish the opportunity to play the dastardly Tartuffe, while his wife, Colleen Smith Wallnau, practically breathes fire as the fiercely judgmental Madame Pernelle.

Kim, Occhiogrosso and the Wallnaus are well known to Centenary Stage Company patrons. Diana Cherkas, who also has appeared in some past CSC productions, plays Elmire, and does a good job of making the character seem genuinely loving even though she is frequently exasperated by her obtuse spouse.

The production also features several Centenary University students, including Erin Clark, a freshman who takes on — and nails — another one of its major parts, Orgon’s daughter Mariane, who is in love with the equally smitten Valère (Luis Rodriguez) but in dire danger of being forced to marry Tartuffe if Orgon can’t be made to see the light.

This is a comedy, so I don’t think I am telling you too much when I assure you that Orgon eventually comes to his senses, and there is a happy ending. Now if only all of our modern Orgons would stop denying reality, as well …

The Centenary Stage Company will present “Tartuffe” at The Sitnik Theatre at The Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown through March 3. Visit centenarystageco.org.

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