“Tartuffe” brings comedy to life

By Mark Hughes Cobb
Staff Writer

Published: Saturday, October 3, 2015 at 8:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 3, 2015 at 8:17 p.m.

If Moliere had written “Tartuffe” today, the hair might pouf out even more outrageously, and his central con-man would be among the multitudes posting prayers, selected feel-good verses and (mostly misattributed) quotes on Facebook, or sharing inspiring thoughts layered over photos of kittens tumbling, via Instagram.

Hypocrisy, ostentation and blustering public virtue are no longer sole province of those seeking to steal, directly or indirectly, from others. Public piety is not only a prerequisite for holding public office, but has crept into the roots of life, especially among those who claim to love the Bible — “The whole Bible is just incredible” — but have forgotten Matthew 6.6: “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”

One reason to perform centuries-old comedies such as “Tartuffe” is to re-ask: Why do we fall for such shows, believe someone who loudly claims to be good is in fact good, rather than judge actions?

Confidence men thrive by an arrogant sense of self-worth, but also by gaining confidence from others — stealing it rather than earning it. Earning is boring. How many successful comedies — or dramas, or musicals — are built around good guys quietly working, being decent and doing things that need to be done? Bleh on that, unless they fly, flex blade-hands or blast laser beams. To snatch our interest, give us a rule-breaker, a line-crosser, a thief. A sociopath.

People who hear “charm” and “sociopathic,” yet fail to link the pair, fail to mistrust those with abundant charm. Ted Bundy didn’t shove women into a van; he talked them into it. To paraphrase Mencken, no one ever went broke playing to the prejudices of the gullible.

Tartuffe” remains comic because not all are the idiot Orgon appears to be, not only sheepishly allowing wooly wigs to obscure his sight, but actually acting in concert with his villain to tumble into the abyss. Laughs of relief come from wish-fulfillment, that clowns such as Tartuffe will be exposed, and that those who fall into darkness can be lifted into the light.

And light is precisely the way director Seth Panitch plays the University of Alabama production of “Tartuffe,” along with fast, semi-furious, somewhat sexual and more-than-slightly silly. It’s all there in Moliere’s work, originally from mid-17th century, here in translation by Richard Wilbur, which demands no alterations, updates or amendments of time, locale or setting. So it’s a costume comedy as well, with big wigs atop bigwigs, those capri-like trousers with stockings over shiny shoes that make us chuckle, ruefully perhaps, should we remember our own fashion-forward days with anything like detachment.

The period dress (and abundant false hair; there doesn’t seem to be an actor on stage sporting his or her own follicles) are thanks to costumer Cassie Kay Hoppas, who assists the laughs with ribbons-and-curls flouncing visual entrances just as surely as Raymond Chandler assured dramatic upswings by writing a dame walking in the door with a gun.

New UA grad student Ian Anderson deftly carries the comedic weight as jittering, rhapsodic, idiotic and melancholic Orgon, making even sudden shifts seem easy, the changing fortunes all part of a questing mind. Orgon’s sympathetic not for his foolish failures, but because he so clearly wants to believe in something.

He’s clearly going to be one we’ll enjoy for his years here, as with also-new MFA student William Green, in the less-flamboyant yet crucial role as stoic brother-in-law Cleante, who tries to steer Orgon straight. Green’s crisp delivery reminds at times of a young John Cleese, without heading into bombast that wouldn’t fit.

Fellow grad actors Zach Stolz, Naomy Ambroise, Morgan Chare’ce Hall and Elizabeth Bernhardt, the latter kicking things off with a bang in a crisp recitation, cleverly match and color the heightened hysteria.

Very impressive indeed continues young David Nicholson, a sophomore going toe-to-toe with more experienced artists, and like his Tartuffe, skating and muscling through with verve, wit and oodles of confidence (the good, earned kind). Nicholson has timing that’s hard to learn, rare to find in someone so young.

Probably in tribute to the acting program at UA, and director Panitch, who’s also chief acting teacher, another undergrad, Brianna Heller, is not only equal to but excellent as Elmire, the wife who must faux-seduce Tartuffe in Orgon’s (hidden) presence to bring about peace in the family.

Throughout, Panitch guides his cast, down to smaller parts and moments, in bits of physical shtick that, while not adding to character or plot, build the walls of absurdity as clearly as dialogue and conflicts.

“Tartuffe,” like fairytales or other morality plays, can instruct. What it mostly does is deliver comedy, a chance to enjoy foolishness at work, and laugh ruefully, perhaps, should we see through the satin and wool to our own, matching folly.