Its easy to understand why director Josh Chambers would want to find a new way into Molière's Tartuffe. For a long time, most Molière in America was performed as if it were Restoration Comedy, complete with big wigs and giggling fops. The French, however, see Molière's plays quite differently, often comparing them to the best in Shakespeare.
We have since learned that while Molière covered subjects current in his day, he also used the real-life stories of members of his troupe. He died onstage performing The Imaginary Invalid, a play about the incompetence of doctors.
The new production of Tartuffe turns the familiar story on its head to make an intense, unfunny rendition of the play. In this version, Tartuffe is really Orgon, while Cléante, Orgon’s brother and the voice of reason, is turned into a drunken suburbanite who just hangs around making out with the maid Dorine. Orgon’s children are not much better: Damis is a goth rebel who goes after his mother, and his sister Marianne spends the play sniffing condensed CO2 gas from some sort of kitchen canister.
The problem is, this approach deconstructs this great play beyond the point of making sense. That Tartuffe has infected Orgon’s brain with religious hypocrisy is in the play, but to have Orgon switch voices and say all Tartuffe’s lines through a mic, although well done, destroys the play and its poetic construct. Cléante must make his speeches of moderation through a drunken haze, while behind him pictures are being placed on all the walls in a way that distracts completely from the words being said.
This is not to say that the actors aren’t game and giving it their all. I must lay the fault squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Chambers. Good deconstruction actually enhances but doesn’t trash the script; it raises the play to new heights through movement. The theatrical pioneer Robert Wilson, a well-known deconstructionist, doesn’t trust text, but that’s because of his experiences with an autistic poet, mentally handicapped children, and his own early speech problems. His works now show an increased respect for the word, using movement and silence to enhance the meaning behind the text. In this production, however, the translator’s (Donald Frame) carefully chosen verse, much of it quite funny, goes out the window; movement obscures the words and becomes a distraction. Sad to say, this Tartuffe is not one for the ages.
At the Boston Court Theatre until March 22.