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Po' PoMo Moliere

The Alley concocts a Blazing Shambles of its slapstick commedia dell'Tartuffe

It's a long way from Moliere to Mel Brooks. One might think this a theatrical distinction so elementary it hardly bears mentioning, but it seems to have gotten lost somewhere in the slapstick shuffle between Moliere's 1669 comic souffle Tartuffe and the Alley's contemporary but considerably less-than-airy adaptation of the play -- a "production by," says the program, Gregory Boyd and his collaborators from California's Dell'Arte Players Company: Michael Fields, Donald Forrest and Joan Schirle. Unfortunately, the intervention of so many under-chefs has woefully muddled the main course -- the prize Moliere. The result is a production that is risky, energetic, amusing, distracting, ill-conceived, shapeless -- and ultimately disappointing.

First impressions: G.W. Mercier's production design, including set and costumes, is visually stunning. Transposed to contemporary Houston, the nouveau-elegant mansion of Orgon and Elmire has become a chockablock double-decker with flattened perspectives, hidden passageways, skewed windows and sideways doors, providing a metaphor for an upended household as well as a comic maze for the players. (Television references abound, and Laugh-in may be lurking in the trap-door wainscoting.) Similarly, the costumes are a pop-neon mishmash of styles and colors, from designer cycling gear to Elmire's haute Houston red zingers, topped off by a native strain of BHS -- Big Hair Syndrome.

The show opens with a man in a gorilla suit surfing channels from cartoons to C-SPAN on a half-dozen TVs, and putting the audience on immediate notice that this Tartuffe will be as much a comedy of 20th-century American as of 17th-century French manners. It's a brave leap from 1670 Paris to 1990 Houston, and it even might have worked if the adapters had been content to establish the setting and the social connections, and trusted the playwright to do the rest. But Boyd and company have trusted neither Moliere nor the audience, and have applied rubber hammer and tongs to the script and the staging. The production turns out to be more a sketch-comedy parody -- or to use a once-trendy term, a "deconstruction" -- of Tartuffe, rather than the real thing. Determined to belabor the connections between Moliere's world and ours, the adapters seem to have forgotten that the differences are as important as the similarities.

Tartuffe (also called "The Impostor") portrays the cozening of a gullible aristocrat, Orgon, by a religious charlatan, Tartuffe, who by fake piety gains Orgon's confidence, proceeding then to steal his fortune. Tartuffe is finally foiled only by the fidelity of Orgon's wife, Elmire, and the direct intervention of the King (who was in fact Moliere's patron and protector, saving the play itself from suppression by the Church). This basic plot framework survives, more or less intact, in its contemporary transposition. Certainly there continue to be plenty of rich men who fall prey to one or another sort of spiritual con-man.

Unfortunately, having accepted this fairly simple premise, the Alley production can't seem to leave well enough alone. The Alley's Orgon (James Black) is not just a na•ve religious gull, but a militaristic, right-wing religious idiot in possession of state secrets (Ollie North has even more to answer for). Tartuffe (Jeffrey Bean) is not a fundamentalist hustler, but only apparently a fundamentalist hustler, in fact devoted to a pseudo-pagan masculine cult lamely and stupidly modeled on Robert Bly's "men's movement."

One supposes the intention was to construct a devil's dictionary of contemporary folly; but in defiance of both the text and simple consistency, Orgon's imposed absurdities suddenly have nothing to do with Tartuffe's. What's worse, in a pantomimed ritual between Black and Bean that closes Act One, these contradictions produce idiotic and humorless physical comedy that takes its place among the most embarrassing moments ever imposed upon two fine actors. I say among, because it gets worse; in the famous discovery scene, when Elmire (Annalee Jefferies) seduces Tartuffe into revealing his true character to Orgon, Moliere's bawdy becomes the Alley's bathos, complete with sophomoric suck jokes and fat-butt gags.

If this be "commedia dell'arte," may it hardy-har-har its way back to the California hills.

Overall, this unevenly collaborative version of the play's language is a disheveled confusion, dismissing Moliere and condescending to the audience. Barely an occasional scent remains of those elegantly balanced couplets (of which there are quite fine contemporary American translations), and generally these are delivered as lampoons. In this stage universe, it seems only poseurs speak verse. Such classical references as remain are to Mother Teresa or, by God, The Honeymooners; apparently the Alley's audience has suddenly become too thick to appreciate either subtlety or history (although it seemed to manage quite well, earlier this season, for Cyrano). Scripts are not scripture, and the occasional contemporary flourish can precisely highlight an interpretation. But if one wishes to make wholesale revisions to Moliere, one had best look about for a playwright at least as good as Moliere. I'm afraid they're in short supply.

But the central fault in this production is that it really doesn't trust Moliere much at all, and particularly disdains the moral center of his satire: a belief in moderation and in reason, and the faith in secular power to maintain order against religious fanaticism. The Alley's version turns Moliere's spokesman for reason, Cleante (Ken Grantham), into a tiresome boor, and its moral authority (the King) into a morally bankrupt presidential regime. (By the way, it returns to an intermittently annoying Alley habit of using African-American actors for abrupt dollops of colorful "jive." Color-blind casting it ain't.) To protest that our world is no longer Moliere's, while true enough, unfortunately pulls the rug out from under the premise of the whole production. What's another pratfall among so many?

Along the way, the company wastes an opportunity to restore vitality to a locally neglected classic, as they did in their brilliant rendition of A Flea in Her Ear a couple of seasons ago. Most distressing is the frank misuse of a whole group of actors at a virtually unmodulated frenetic pitch of ham-handed slapstick, heavily burdened by the boorish influence of such subtle theatrical sources as Saturday Night Live. As the play opens, a virtually unrecognizable Karen MacDonald enters, screaming, as Madame Pernelle, and nearly every scene is howled at the same dismal decibel level until she returns, screaming, at the close. In between, the principals and Dustin Smith (Damis), Shelley Williams (Mariane), John Feltch (Valere), Kimberly King (Dorine), Michael Ballard (Monsieur Loyal) and Alex Allen Morris (The Assistant Undersecretary) chew the scenery and assail the air with a palpable determination to convince the audience we're having a good time.

Now and then, thanks primarily to a nearly inaudible but still-valiant playwright almost but not quite obscured by all this noisy imposture -- we do.

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