Commedia tonight! Michael Fields and Deborah Taylor Barrera.
Some of the theater world's most enduring successes started out as incredibly bad ideas. A pop-musical condensation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables? How could that possibly work? Shakespeare's Macbeth staged as a Road Warrior-style apocalypse, starring Danny Glover as the murderous Thane? Ridiculous! A contemporary re-imagining of Ovid's Metamorphoses with much of the action tagged in a vast swimming pool? What kind of drugs are you taking?
In spite of its unlikely potential, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Les Miserables is still playing to packed houses after 15 years. Mary Zimmerman's boldly aquatic Metamorphoses was a sensational hit. And that Danny Glover Macbeth? I saw it in Los Angeles 26 years ago, before anyone knew who he was, and the critical raves from that show couldn't have hurt the start of his career.
Some ideas sound unlikely but can, with the right people pulling the right strings, result in riveting theater. At the same time, some audaciously bold ideas may sound rich, may even be called fool-proof, but once onstage reveal themselves as bad ideas after all, interesting but largely unsuccessful.
Such is the case with Dell' Arte Company's new production of Moliére's farcical comedy Tartuffe, running through Dec. 10 at the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley. The Dell' Arte Company is renowned for productions staged in the highly physical style of Italian commedia dell' arte, with actors donning masks with grotesquely exaggerated features as they juggle, romp, stilt-walk and somersault their way through elaborately choreographed plots.
Though Moliére was reputedly inspired by the commedia style, his works tend more toward verbal wittiness than physical comedy. According to historians, Tartuffe did have a run at a Parisian theater where a troupe of Italian comedians were also performing, so it is conceivable that such a collaboration might have taken place.
The story is fairly well-known. The aged Orgon (nicely played by Adrian C. Mejia) is a wealthy landowner with a house full of servants and a young, pretty wife, Elmire (Deborah Taylor Barrera). Orgon's daughter, Mariane (Jackie Dandeneau), wants to marry the foppish Valere (a marvelously silly David Ferny), but Orgon, who's begun to worry about the future of his soul, has decided to marry her instead to Tartuffe, a con man in holy man's robes who has insinuated himself into the foolish Orgon's household.
As played by Dell' Arte's producing artistic director Michael Fields, Tartuffe is a conspicuous liar, a charmingly roguish scalawag who has imposed the strictest moral behavior among Orgon's family and staff while simultaneously scheming to take the old man's money and schtupp his wife on the side. The timeliness of a show about hypocrisy among influential religious figures is obvious; exposing the shadow side of those who oppress us never goes out of style, which explains Tartuffe's popularity after a run of some 340 years.
The problem with this Tartuffe--imaginatively and rambunctiously directed by Giulio Cesare Perrone--is that instead of bringing extra vivacity and insight to Moliére's tale of religious charlatans and pious hypocrisy, all of the masks and monkeyshines and acrobatics actually diminishes the power of the story instead of enhancing it. Such is the danger whenever a classic is repurposed to fit a different time period or style than originally written. Such tinkerings must bring at least as much to the source material as they end up taking away from it.
Instead of energizing MoliÈre, the wildness and wackiness and nonstop buffoonery of the comedians (clearly all brilliant performers) merely flattens the show, turning it from a brilliant and sharp-sighted indictment of religious tyranny and blind devotion into a pleasant enough pageant of whimsical diversions.
Not that there's anything wrong with pure whimsy. Anything that attracts new and younger audiences to Moliére is worth considering (opening night saw a much younger and decidedly more Mohawked audience than usual for the MTC), but in the end, this show just doesn't work.
'Tartuffe' runs Tuesday-Sunday through Dec. 10. Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; Wednesday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 2pm and 7pm; also, Saturday at 2pm; Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 1pm. $19-$47; Tuesday, pay what you can. Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 415.388.5208.
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