White Male Landowner Blues: Post5 Theater's "Tartuffe"
By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Though firmly embedded in the classical stage canon, "Tartuffe" (at Milepost5 through March 16) is an uncomfortable play to sit through. Written in 1664 by Moliere, it depicts a world where patriarchal authority is in full flower. Its plot concerns the titular Tartuffe (Garland Lyons), an impoverished, ostentatiously religious man, who's been taken in to the estate of Orgon (Keith Cable), to the dismay of the latter's family. All but Orgon suspect Tartuffe is a fraud, and fear his growing influence overly the bewitched landowner. For their production, Post5 has set the play in present day Texas, a choice with pluses and minuses. The show hums with Post5's characteristic energy and imagination. It's a joy to hear the cast tear into Moliere's beautiful, funny verse with their Southern twangs. Sarah Peters, as the meddling maid Dorine, and Jim Davis, as Orgon's down to earth, moderation preaching brother in law, in particular, bring an amazingly witty lived in quality to their performances. The setting takes on a bizarrely anachronistic tone, however, when plots involving the parental approval necessary for marriage, or the king's intervention in legal cases come up. One uncomfortable stretch during the first act where Orgon screams orders at, and demands loyalty from, the women and children in his life for about twelve minutes, plays almost like a horror film in which the gains made regarding social justice in the world over the past 350 years have vanished. Much of the play's plot involves Orgon's family contriving to expose Tartuffe's duplicity in order to break the spell he holds over their patriarch. Christy Drogosch shines in these sequences as Elmire, Orgon's sensual second wife. She has a perfect blend of feistiness and physicality for the role. Likewise, Post5 regular Philip J. Berns is hilarious as Orgon's hotheaded son Damir, whom he portrays with a cartoonish explosiveness. As Tartuffe, Lyons has the right amount of oily swarthiness the part calls for. We see his religious hypocrite thinking on his toes, sliding in and out of calculation and delusion. His attempted seduction of Elmire, one of world theater's all time gross outs, is made all the more uncomfortable by Lyons' deft reconciliation on Tartuffe's sanctimony and carnality. The play's main structural weakness is its inability to explain Orgon's affection for Tartuffe, a problem this staging doesn't solve. We're told Orgon is intemperate and "bizarre," but he's portrayed here as a southern alpha male. Cable drawls and carries himself with a preening entitlement. It's a stretch to think his Orgon would ever cast himself as the wing man to a penniless ascetic. We learn fairly early that Orgon has withdrawn approval for his daughter Marianne's (Chelsie Kinney) marriage to Valere (Dennis Kelly), and promised her to Tartuffe. Kinney is hilarious in her scenes, her face expressing the constant panic and devastation that her Marianne feels, but is unable to put into words. Post5's "Tartuffe" employs the interesting device of musical interludes between scenes, performed by Larry Wilder, who's accompanied at times by Davis and Peters. Wilder sings folksy religious songs, suggesting a place where the belief in Christianity is woven into everyday life. This becomes problematic at the play's conclusion, when Wilder is joined by the entire cast for a song about how everyone who is good will meet up in heaven when they're dead. The message this is meant to convey given the political meaning Southern evangelical Christianity has held in our country for the last twenty years, particularly with regards to LGBTQ rights, feels both unclear and uncomfortable. Post5 is a great company and their production's, this one included, crackle with an energy and light that's a joy to behold. "Tartuffe," however, can strike one as equal parts sour and sweet, having enshrined injustice in its story without critiquing it. "Tartuffe" by Post5 at Milepost5 through March 16th.