The set-up: Any play banned in Paris during the reign of Sun King Louis XIV meant the playwright must be doing something right. With gleeful rapier wit, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (a.k.a. Moliere) tweaked the noses of the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and even those of the lower class. No one's nose went unpinched.
In Tartuffe (1664) he gives center stage to the ultimate hypocrite -- his character's name immediately entered the lexicon as the nickname for anyone who practices deceitful pretension. Because Tartuffe worms his way into Orgon's household pretending to be devout, the religious authorities were aghast at Moilere's irreverence and impiety. They denounced his play with such venomous fervor, that Louis, who to his eternal credit had a genuine soft spot for Moliere, acquiesced to their demands that the play be banned. It could still be read or performed in private, however, and Moliere mounted a five-year campaign, while also writing and directing for his theater company, to get the edict reversed. Finally in 1669, the censorious old farts were gone, and Tarfuffe bloomed.
The execution: Presented by the Rice University Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts, Tartuffe is a handsome affair: elegant harpsichord entr'acte music; a neoclassical room designed by Matthew Schlief -- all eggshell blue and yellow with sconces and plaster gilding; sumptuous costumes by Macy Perrone in shimmering brocades and velvets. The play looks rich.
The English adaptation is in rhyme, which takes time for our ears to acclimate to the artifice. Moliere wrote in rhyme, too, and was famous for his alexandrine couplets, but when it's in French, it sounds a lot more natural. A few of the actors don't quite get into the peculiar rhythm, and some line readings thud like a poor recitation of Cat in the Hat.
Tartuffe is simple farce, uncomplicated in motive and unconcerned with intricacy of character. That's Tartuffe's power. The sting is in the archetypes. Everyone in the household, except dotty Orgon (Qingyang Peng) and his dottier mother Madame Pernelle Alice Rhoades), knows what a phony Tartuffe (Jake LaViola) is. Even motor-mouth saucy maid Dorine (Susannah Eig) can't be fooled. Rational man Cleante (Michael Hollis) tries his best Universal Reason to convince Orgon, but no go.
That's how the play begins, everyone denouncing the fraud but powerless to stop his encroachment. When Orgon announces that daughter Mariane (Tasneem Islam) will marry Tartuffe and not her beloved Valere (Travis Hoyt), son Damis (John Hegele) goes into overdrive to expose the fox. But when he overhears Tartuffe making unwarranted love to his mother and bursts out of the wardrobe to catch him in the act, sly Tartuffe confesses all to Orgon who immediately forgives him and banishes Damis for falsely impugning such a pious man.
As in the best of commedia dell'arte, complications pile up. There's the deed to the house signed over to Tartuffe, shady political documents now in Tartuffe's possession that implicate Orgon, and another delicious seduction scene where Orgon hides under the table upon which his wife, any moment, may be compromised. The flow is masterful; the ride like a funhouse.
Tartuffe is superbly played by LaViola, whose youth, vigor, and sly glint seem just right to lust after the purring Elmire of Jones, who plays wise wife as if she were Maggie Le Chat. LaViola knows just what he's doing, and it's a pleasure to watch his nimble maneuvers.
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Peng gives obtuse Orgon a lovely unfazed quality, as if he'd been hit over the head with a copper sauce pan. With his fat wig, round face, and round little body, he looks designed by Disney.
Hoyt and Islam, who has the most expressive eyes, play the young lovers as petulant children, and their reconciliation scene is roughly manhandled with unnecessary shouting. Fortunately, Eig's wise-ass Dorine is there to smooth the waters. In the subsidiary role of Monsieur Loyal, barrister for Tartuffe and bearer of very bad news for Orgon, Corey Palermo arrives fresh from Moliere's pen: officious, pompous, fey. It's a wonderful turn, quirky and smart.
The verdict: For all his barbed disrespect, Moliere turned comedy respectable. Tartuffe needs revisiting every now and then to remind us of our own foibles. Rice's version, under director Samuel Sparks, is good for the eyes and the soul.
Moliere's tasty dissection of hypocrisy runs through November 17 at Rice University's Hamman Hall, Exit #20 off Rice Blvd. $10 -$5. To purchase tickets, visit theatrerice.edu or call 713-348-PLAY.