There is a moment in Molière’s classic 1664 comedy “Tartuffe” in which the title character, an unctuous con man masquerading as a pious Man of God, is defending his betrayal of the rich but gullible Orgon. Tartuffe has managed to have Orgon’s estate signed over to him, but says he intends to use it “for Heaven’s glory and mankind’s benefit.”
It’s good that he has it, he audaciously claims, “Lest so much wealth fall into wicked hands/Lest those to whom it might descend in time/Turn it to purposes of sin and crime.”
Cléante, Orgon’s sensible brother, isn’t buying it, and upbraids him, starting with the phrase, “Forget these trumped-up fears.”
The phrased “trumped-up” jumps out at you, of course. It’s the kind of pun a contemporary playwright might make, for obvious reasons. Yet it’s right there, too, in the 1960s Richard Wilbur translation that the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is using in its current, sparkling production. And it seems totally appropriate.
In the play’s program, director Bonnie J. Monte notes the “startling relevance” of “Tartuffe” — which is opening the theater’s 56th season — to the current state of the world. “There are always a number of centuries-old plays in each of our seasons that are chosen because they so brilliantly shine a light on contemporary life or current concerns, but never has a 349-year-old play felt so modern to me,” she writes.
Indeed, it might seems unrealistic that Orgon is utterly enraptured by Tartuffe for most of the play while most of other characters see right through him. But we’re seeing that kind of scenario played out, on a national level, right now.
Brent Harris effectively adds a slyly sinister undercurrent to everything Tartuffe says, and Patrick Toon plays Orgon with an appropriate touch of wide-eyed, puppyish earnestness. Among the other characters, I thought Victoria Mack was particularly good as the smart, take-charge, frequently exasperated housemaid, Dorine.
I felt Aaron McDaniel, though, gave his character Damis (Orgon’s son) too much cartoonish boisterousness, and that Vivian Reed went a bit over-the-top in projecting the fierce anger of her character, Madame Pernell (Orgon’s mother).
Overall, though, the cast does a great job, delivering every line of Molière/Wilbur poetry smoothly, and making every joke sting. Nikki Delhomme’s costumes and Brittany Vasta’s set (see video below to get a good sense of them) help create a sense of old-fashioned opulence, though as Monte helpfully points out in the program, the clothing is more typical of the mid-1700s than the mid-1600s, and the set has a more minimalistic look than would have been typical for Molière’s time.
Both were done, she writes, to “subtly stress the blatant ‘now-ness’ of the piece.”
But I think that would have come through, anyway.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison will present “Tartuffe” through June 10. Visit shakespearenj.org.