TARTUFFE I AM
by Andrew Turner
published March 13, 2009
now playing Off Broadway @ Seaport
through April 5
Romeo and Juliet in Verona Beach.
The Cherry Orchard in post-apartheid South Africa. Henry
IV in Idaho.
Nowadays, if you want to produce a classic play, it’s almost de rigeur to place it in a
modern setting. The rationale, I suppose, is to make it more appealing to modern audiences; to demonstrate how universal themes stay
universal regardless of time or place.
The only problem is, these juxtapositions seldom work. Language is the usual culprit. Since few directors have the chutzpah to
rework the original text, the combination of classic, poetic speech with a contemporary setting is usually just… weird. When Leonardo
DiCaprio squints his way through “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” the girls might swoon, but it’s not at the beauty of
the Bard’s language.
The Dog Run Rep production of Tartuffe, now playing Off Broadway at the South Street
Seaport, is no exception. Director/Artistic Director Jeff Cohen has decided to set the play in 1930’s America, during the Great Depression,
his stated rationale “so we can laugh as we witness our own world go to hell in a handbasket… that we can learn how easily and
irresponsibly supposedly intelligent people can be so thoroughly duped by a friendly face.”
Not a bad idea with the economic crisis on everyone’s mind. (Although you have to wonder why Cohen just didn’t go ahead and set it
in modern day New York. Perhaps he was scared of the inevitable comparisons between Tartuffe and Madoff, and the possible antisemitic
backlash.) The problem, once again, is language. Moliere wrote Tartuffe in rhyming couplets, and the rhyming couplets remain in this
version. Not only does this make it sound like a Doctor Seuss poem, but it ruins all attempts to make it sound modern. Couplets are fine
for scoundrels in ruffles and cravats, but just sound silly in the mouths of slicksters in seersucker suits.
What does work (and worked in Moliere’s time and will probably work in the theatre from now to eternity) is the physical comedy of
the piece. If you can stop yourself from trying to predict the next obvious end rhyme, you will no doubt have a fine time watching this
talented troupe bumble about the stage. In fact, the foreigners to my right – who were loaded down with shopping bags and had clearly just
chanced upon the theatre after Aeropostale closed for the night – seemed to be having a fantastic time, even if they didn’t understand a
word of what was being said.
andrewturner @ stageandcinema.com