How many different words can you think of that rhyme with "Tartuffe"? This was one of the silly and thoroughly entertaining games I played with myself Friday night as I watched Moliere's play by that name. Playing at Taproot Theatre now through March 3, "Tartuffe" by Moliere and translated by Richard Wilbur is performed all in rhyme -- thus the game.
A rhyming script risks that the rhyme will take over and the sense will be lost. It's up to the author, the director, the actors, and, in this case, the translator to make sure this doesn't happen. Happily, Wilbur's translation is wonderful and Taproot pulls it off well. The rhymes appeal to the ear, and occasionally add a laugh, but for the most part we in the audience just hear people talking with one another, which is exactly as it ought to be.
Tartuffe, played by Frank Lawler, is a con man playing the part of a deeply pious man who has fallen on hard times. His act takes in Orgon (Don Brady) who, in his desire to help Tartuffe, is on the verge of losing everything: his home; his fortune; his good name; his daughter, Mariane (Charissa Adams), whether in miserable marriage to Tartuffe or to a dire choice on her part to avoid it is unclear; his son, Damis (Solomon Davis) whom he drives away; and his wife, Elmire (Jesse Notehelfer) to cuckoldry.
Orgon's family sees through Tartuffe and one by one they try to convince Orgon to cast the rogue out. One by one, they are put off themselves as Orgon in his religious fervor convinces himself that they are vindictive and sinful, lacking a true understanding of Tartuffe's character.
In particular, Mariane, engaged to Valere but now being threatened with marriage to Tartuffe, makes a touching and poignant plea to her father Orgon. With no hint of modern irony in her tone, she speaks of her desire to obey and honor her father while knowing she cannot share her life with the fraud, Tartuffe. Ryan Childers as Cleante, Elmire's brother and Orgon's brother-in-law, is also eloquent and speaks beautifully of the distinction between true piety and pretense: "I know that true and false are not the same."
Though the play is written and set in the 1600s, it has many timeless themes presented in a pleasingly coherent way. The question of blame versus responsibility, for example: Tartuffe asks the maid Dorine (Charity Parenzini) to cover her bosom so as not to tempt him, and she scoffs at him, saying that she is perfectly able to control herself and that he ought to be as well.
Later, Tartuffe says about another character, "She's made me sinfully annoyed," suggesting again that the responsibility for his actions is always elsewhere. "Should the fear of being misunderstood prevent us from doing what is good?" asks one character in talking about the difference between doing something for show, rather than because it is right.
Orgon's family, while frustrated and angry at him, continues to be faithful to their love for him, while Tartuffe, in response to the gifts he has been given, threatens Orgon with eviction and prison. It's often tempting to think that people in the past don't have our grasp of the subtleties of good behavior and values, but Moliere makes it clear that this is not true.
I've made it sound like this is a weighty play, and in truth these are weighty topics that were not received particularly well in their time, but the play itself is a delight. My partner and I snickered and chuckled and laughed out loud all the way through, and the costumes alone were enough to bring a smile with their gaudy bling of the time.
I chortled at Valere's (Mariane's fiancée played by Nathan Jeffrey) entrance: he bounded in, a vision in powder blue and pink with bows in his hair, and showed a leg in fine form, a posture taken up in the time of King Louis the XIV to show off the fancy shoe buckles.
All becomes right in the end as it ought in a comedy. By all means, go see it!
"Tartuffe" runs through March 3 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-781-9707 or visit online at taproottheatre.org