ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As I looked in my program before “Tartuffe” commenced at the Adobe Theater, I was a bit apprehensive to read that director Mario Cabrera decided to set the play in the American South just after the Civil War.
Moliere wrote his plays in exquisite rhymed couplets, producing an ordered elegance of language unmatched in dramatic literature; and as rendered into English by poet Richard Wilbur, these gorgeous French comedies are classics even in English.
The 19th century American South is about as far removed from Louis XIV’s neo-classical France, the golden age of French culture, as one could imagine. I wondered what this unusual juxtaposition would yield.
My worst fears were realized as soon as the actors came on stage and began to speak. I soon realized, however, that it was not so much the transposition of the play but the bombastic overacting, gratuitous movement, and shrill vocal delivery that was sabotaging this most exquisite of plays. It seemed the director was worried that an American audience would not appreciate an elegant French comedy first performed in 1669, and therefore directed his actors to engage in the most flagrant violations of decorum, something Moliere’s comedies are not made to withstand.
Moliere was the ultimate man of the theater, writing not only some of the world’s greatest plays for his theater troupe, but playing the leading roles as well. Naturally he played Tartuffe, a religious hypocrite who has designs on his benefactor’s wife and ultimately almost makes off with his entire fortune. Tartuffe is one of the great comic roles of the canon, and Moliere delayed the comic villain’s entrance for close to half an hour, building anticipation in the audience.
The Adobe production was given a huge lift when actor Rod Harrison finally entered as Tartuffe, clad all in black as though he were a monk and with a huge cross hanging from his neck. The actor’s every gesture, movement and vocal inflection perfectly suggested character and intention, and was in just the right style.
Likewise, his perfect phrasing and delivery of the language proved that the play could be set in the south, or anywhere else, so long as the actors possessed the appropriate mastery of the material. He is so good I could almost recommend this production on account of his performance alone, but, alas, the aforesaid faults among the rest of the cast are so egregious as to render much of the dialogue unintelligible.
At the end, the whole play completely fell apart when the officer gave his long speech. This may be an otherwise small part, but his speech is lengthy and important and the director must cast an actor capable of reciting the language. One exception is Fawn Hanson as Elmire, the married woman Tartuffe wants to bed. The famous scene where she attempts to entrap the scoundrel while her credulous husband is hiding under the table went off very nicely. By and large it’s the large group scenes that proved especially problematic. Wilbur’s translations of Moliere are so charming you could station the actors behind music stands with no movement at all, and provided the actors had adequate vocal training, it would make for a delightful evening.
“Tartuffe” is playing through June 23 at Adobe Theater, 9813 Fourth NW. Go to adobetheater.org or call 898-9222 for reservations.