By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
It’s a funny thing about plays and playwrights and how they seem to go in and out of fashion. Every so often, in some great gust of synchronicity, several theater companies will all, unbeknownst to the other, schedule a certain play or works by a certain playwright. These spates of productions usually follow a fallow period for the play or the writer.
Take our good friend Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, the famous French playwright you might know better as Molière and the author of one hell of a lot of plays including such chart toppers as The Imaginary Invalid, The Miser, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, The Misanthrope and what is undoubtedly his number one hit Tartuffe. Over the years you’d suddenly find that everybody would go Molière-Mad! and there’d be a glut on the market. And then you’d not hear from the guy for decades.
Tartuffe continues through August 31. Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, 5600 Penn Avenue. Garfield. 412/506-0959. firstname.lastname@example.org
Earlier this summer a local company brought us a contemporary updating of his play Scapin and now Cup-A-Jo Productions is giving us their rendition of Tartuffe … can Imaginary Invalid be far behind?
Just in case you don’t know, Tartuffe is a hypocritical and libertine leach posing as a righteous man of piety. A local noble, Orgon, has been so bamboozled by Tartuffe’s religiosity that he plans to bequeath him both his estate and his daughter. All the while Tartuffe has set his chapeau for Elmire, Orgone’s wife. Will Tartuffe’s treacherous intrigues be tumbled in time? Here’s a hint, it’s a comedy.
Cup-A-Jo’s a scrappy local company focusing on the work, more than the accouterments and this production hews closely to that ethos. The show’s taking place in a Garfield art gallery and everything’s out in the open. There’s no dressing rooms so the actors are applying make-up and getting into costume in front of you. The “stage” is just the gallery space with audience chairs lined up against the wall. The actors are positioned at opposite walls and to make their entrances just take a few steps forward.
Cup-A-Jo director Joanna Lowe says in her program notes that this has been done to reinforce the play’s themes of public face/private face. I don’t doubt that. But it also saves the company a boatload of money which is a good thing as Pittsburgh isn’t really a city known for it’s support of indigenous theater artists.
It’s probably a surprise to no one that I’m not a huge fan of this 1664 comedy classic and its hardly a complaint to say that even a lavishly outfitted, insanely budgeted production is only ever going to feel like a musty theatrical exercise. I have a feeling the few people itching to see Molière are people who spent a lot of time in theater classes.
But with that caveat I must say this Cup-A-Jo production has one thing going for it which provides the evening a great deal of interest. Like pretty much every version of Moliére performed in English, this translation is by two-time Pulitzer winning poet Richard Wilbur. And like all his Molière translations this one is more wit than witty. While not particularly funny, Wilbur’s version (written in the same alexandrine couplets as Molière’s original) is studied, yes, but also clear and elegant.
I don’t know where Cup-A-Jo found them, but they’ve managed to round up a cast all possessed of the thrilling ability to make this language sing. These nine actors seem to have been born speaking this precise poetry and I do want to make sure I salute every last one of them: Joe Cannito, Casey Cunningham, Amy Dick, Lauren Judson, Everett Lowe, Marsha Mayhak, Kevin H. Moore, Samantha Smith and Maura Underwood.
Director Lowe is wise enough to keep all this glorious speechifying moving at a perfect pace and while I do find Tartuffe a fairly silly play, I’m not so lost in my own philistinism I can’t recognize collective talent when I see it.