First performed in France in 1664, Molière's Tartuffe is a comedy for the ages — a hypocritical individual seeks to relieve an impressionable gentleman of his wealth, possessions and social standing by means of flattery and persuasion. Currently on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, the play perfectly illustrates the willingness of some people to believe what they want to believe, despite glaring evidence to the contrary.
As the play opens, the audience is first asked if we would like the play to be performed in French or English. Fortunately for us, the decision is firmly in favor of English — especially since the original was entirely written in 12-syllable rhyming couplets.
Before we meet the aforementioned impressionable gentleman Orgon (Dave Fuller), we are introduced to his household — mother Madame Pernelle (Willi Welton), wife Elmire (Kim Haile), brother Cléante (Morgan Cox), daughters Damia (Jewel Blanchard) and Marianne (Marguerite Rose Hockaday) and housemaid Dorine (Tracy Elizabeth Foltz). We learn that Elmire is being not-so-subtly courted by the hypocritical holy man Tartuffe (David Hamilton) Orgon met through his church, that Damia is something of a firebrand, that Marianne is engaged to Valère (Nathan Lenhoff), a young man of good standing, that Madame Pernelle is also under Tartuffe's spell and that Dorine is much more than a mere servant. Orgon then proceeds to throw a wrench into the already rocky family dynamics by declaring that Marianne should drop Valère and marry Tartuffe.
This announcement finally pushes the entire household (except Madame Pernelle) to act in getting Tartuffe out of the house. Damia's plan to kill him with a sword is rapidly pushed aside in favor of Elmire using her womanly wiles to persuade Tartuffe against marrying Marianne. Unfortunately, that plan misfires as Tartuffe has little interest in Marianne, preferring to continue his quest for Elmire. And even when Orgon discovers the two of them almost in flagrante delicto, he still believes his family is conspiring to drive poor Tartuffe away. Not only does he tell Tartuffe to stay close by his wife but he also gives the self-declared "poor sinner" power of attorney over his financial affairs.
Clearly, this can only lead to bigger problems — and it does — but it also produces some of the play's laugh-out-loud funniest moments, involving Elmire forcefully resisting Tartuffe's advances and Tartuffe stuffing ice cubes down his pants. All of which is overheard by Orgon, who has been persuaded to spy on the pair. Finally, he realizes what Tartuffe's been up to all along and tells him to get out — forgetting that he had signed the house over to Tartuffe, who summons Monsieur Loyale, a bailiff, to oversee the eviction of Orgon's family. By now, even Madame Pernelle has accepted the reality, but fate has one final twist in store and this time it's not in Tartuffe's favor ...
Hamilton is quite wonderful as Tartuffe, caressing his crucifix and preening in a hand mirror in equal measure. He's over-the-top and subtle at the same time, revealing his true motives in sly aside expressions to the audience. Fuller's Orgon is the perfect counterpoint, earnest and trusting in Tartuffe while frustrated to the point of literally bouncing up and down in the face of his family's intransigence. Foltz is great fun as Dorine, the housemaid who knows too much — and tells the audience everything; my only quibble is that in a few places, the script implies the character is rather older than she is presented here. Haile is also clearly enjoying herself in the role of Elmire, revealing her inner coquette to just the right degree while keeping a firm hand on the men in her life.
Blanchard excels as hyper-dramatic teen Damia, while Hockaday as Marianne strikes an effective and believable balance between dreaming of Valère and wailing at the prospect of wedding Tartuffe. Lenhoff is less successful in his rather wooden portrayal of Valère, and Cox as Cléante is just confusing — he's amusing to watch but appears to be channeling a particularly campy impersonation of David Sedaris that doesn't have a lot to do with the play.
Rounding out the mostly excellent cast are Willi Welton as a queenly Madame Pernelle, Bill Welton as the bailiff with a secret up his sleeve and NCRT favorite Pam Service as the bailiff's arresting officer.
In this 2000 translation by Curtis Page and adapted by the play's director (and NCRT Artistic Director) Calder Johnson and others, the language of the script is fairly timeless, although passing references to mimosas, rotisserie chickens and doorbells are a little jarring. Serena Hai's costumes do a wonderful job of complementing the characters and Calder Johnson's deceptively simple pink-and-gold Louis XIV scenic design works well for both atmosphere and actors. Johnson is also lighting designer, sound designer and property manager for this fun production.
Tartuffe shows every Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through Aug. 11 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 300 Fifth St. in Eureka. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.ncrt.net or call 442-6278.
Plays in the Park will present an original children's musical, A Midsummer's Daydream, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. in Redwood Park from Aug. 3 through Aug. 25.
Humboldt Light Opera Co. presents the musical Anne of Green Gables Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1 through Aug. 10, with matinees on Aug. 4, Aug. 10 and Aug. 11 at 2 p.m. All performances at the Hart Theater (home of Ferndale Repertory Theatre).