By Vicki Weisfeld
A theatrical work maintains its ability to delight audiences for more than 350 years for only one reason: continued relevance. Such is the case with Molière’s comic masterpiece Tartuffe, on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. This sparkling production, directed by STNJ’s artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte, opened May 19. Originally scheduled to run through June 3, the production is receiving such a strong audience response and so much praise, the run has been extended to June 10.
In 1664, Tartuffe so scandalized the powers-that-be, with its take-down of religious hypocrisy and false piety, that the right wing clergy banned it. After a few text changes and with French King Louis XIV’s strong support, the ban was lifted five years later. In the current era, with #MeToo, families rent by political divisions, and the difference between truth and lies increasingly contentious, Tartuffe hits home once again.
Only a 2018 audience would respond so strongly to a situation in which a woman is threatened with rape, but the man accusing her attacker is disbelieved—“Now you know what it’s like not to be believed,” says a female character. Today’s audience likewise has a robust appreciation for the wiles of con man and dissembler Tartuffe (played by Brent Harris), his credulous and all-too-willing victim, Orgon (Patrick Toon), and the frustrated household members who cannot convince him of the deception.
That household includes Orgon’s wife Elmire (Caroline Kinsolving), daughter (Sarah Nicole Deaver), son (Aaron McDaniel), Elmire’s brother (William Sturdivant), and saucy maid Dorine (Victoria Mack). Only Orgon and his mother (Vivian Reed) side with Tartuffe against the family.
Orgon took the pious Tartuffe in when he was a beggar, installed him in his home, and moves him closer and closer to the center of family life. His next plan is to rescind permission for his daughter to marry her love and instead wed her to the odious Tartuffe. Several scenes take place in which Tartuffe’s unwelcome intrusions are thoroughly discussed before we see the man himself. When he does appear, Brent Harris does not disappoint. He is so-o-o-oo smarmy, wearing a long white-blonde wig as pallid as his pieties.
The entire cast is strong, especially Toon and Kinsolving, the delectable Deaver (she has a great scene with her fiancé, played by Mark Hawkins), and Mack and McDaniel’s lively physical comedy. Reed lends an unexpected, preacherly African-American cadence that works admirably with the verse. (The translation is by Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate, the late Richard Wilbur).While some of the speeches tend to be long, the production is so full of movement and wit that it never flags.
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!