Though some might think the work of Moliere a boring, dated, tiresome affair, the Richard Wilbur “Tartuffe” at the Yale Repertory Theatre is funny, poignant, fresh and full of pep! One leaves, not irritated at having listened to two-and-a-half hours of bourgeois comedy and stilted language, but rather thoroughly amused and moved, and strangely inclined to speak in heroic couplets.
The translation of Richard Wilbur (the 1987 poet laureate who spoke at St. Anthony Hall on Tuesday) is lively and playful. Most of the actors do service to the text, judiciously reserving sing-songy recitation and emphasis on rhyme for moments of absurdity, flawed logic or mockery. Director Zach Grenier’s Tartuffe is marvelously repulsive, and Sally Windert’s performance as Dorine is a tour de force, larger than life, funny and sharp, avoiding sloppiness and caricature. Orgon (Michael Rudko) is strong, though his portrayal does little to shed light on why he is so duped by Tartuffe. To be fair, his blind worship is the conceit of the play, and perhaps it is purposely left to the audience to imagine a plausible explanation (a particularly interesting question to fathom with respect to the power of evangelism in America today).
Daniel Talbott’s Valere is the weakest portrait. Strongly reminiscent of Jack Black, he makes it impossible to empathize with his lovers’ strife. This turn towards slapstick is surprising and disappointing in a production that otherwise so astutely oscillates between a bubbly sort of humor and a darker exploration of the dangers of blind faith.
The design is far and above the most interesting aspect of the production. A wall divides the set, so that one-third of the stage is a highly decorated period bedroom and the other two-thirds are starkly modern: two gray walls with a large video screen in each, and a single black chair in which a security guard often sits. This unbalanced composition makes a startling and pleasing stage picture. The video screens project live footage of the on-stage action, and the audience quickly realizes that there is a camerawoman in modern dress (the rest of the cast is costumed in period-esque attire) skulking around the set.
What this all means is excessively unclear. At different points the video screens turn off, or curtains cover them, or they project a frame with no actors in it, or they change angles. Though these changes are visually exciting, they do not seem to be part of a larger system of meaning. The video screens evoke questions of surveillance in modern life, different modes of perception, reality television, what it means to believe what we see, certainly — but it is difficult to derive a deeper analysis than that. The actor-less frames beautifully evoke 17th-century Dutch paintings; when this happens, the guard seems more like a museum guard than a security guard, and the video screens seem to speak to the fragmented way we view history through static pieces of art. At other times, though, the camera swiftly jumps back and forth between wittily bantering characters, and one can’t help but think of television shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Despite the lack of a defined visual semiotics, the live footage is able to achieve something quite remarkable. The camerawoman and, more importantly, the director, are able to focus the audience’s attention in a way normally impossible in theater. The on-screen close-ups juxtaposed against the larger stage picture makes for a fascinating layering — one that implicitly calls into question the power of film and theater and their relation to one another.
Within this environment, “Tartuffe” can flourish in all its humor and complexity. Even without the odd smattering of modern-day clothing (seemingly placed to guard against an appearance of stuffiness), the story of “Tartuffe” is remarkably relevant. The dangers of religious fervor and a powerful patriarchy are far from peripheral in contemporary society.