What makes a play a classic? Obviously, a topic and characters that we can relate to no matter what the year. And, boy, can audiences today still relate to Moliere’s 1664 classic about religious hypocrisy and gullibility, Tartuffe, now being presented by the FSU/Asolo Conservatory at the Historic Asolo Theater.
There’s a great deal of fun in Moliere’s tale of a family arguing over the father’s new favorite, the supposedly holy man Tartuffe (Geoff Knox), but there’s also a great deal of truth—about how a wily evangelist can take an obstinate man for a ride and get away with murder because of an appearance of piety. Challenged by his victim’s wife during one of his transgressions, Tartuffe explains, “I may be pious, but I’m human, too.” How often have we heard that one from a sobbing sinner caught in the act?
Geoff Knox and Tony Stopperan in Tartuffe.
In director Wes Grantom’s staging of the play, the year is 1912, so there’s a bit of an Edwardian feel to the piece, but that mainly influences the set and costumes. The characters are eternal: the haranguing mother (Katie Cunningham), who believes as much as her foolish son Orgon (Tony Stopperan) does that any criticism of Tartuffe is heresy; the rather clueless but sweet daughter, Marianne (Ashley Scallon), and her lover, Valere (Benjamin Boucvalt), who may be displaced by Tartuffe if Orgon has his way; the hothead son (Luke Bartholomew), who may likewise be disinherited; the sensible brother-in-law (Jon-Michael Miller) trying to bring calm to the household confusion; and the attractive wife, Elmire (Summer Dawn Wallace), for whom Tartuffe has a lech that just may finally cook his goose. Oh, and of course there’s a masterful servant, Dorine (Megan Delay), who speaks her mind freely to all and may be the one to come up with a plan that makes everyone—except Tartuffe—happy.
The night I attended the performance, there was a small but appreciative audience, and the Conservatory students successfully entertained them. In general, the actors can handle Moliere’s rhyming couplets with ease, and their attitudes toward the piece are correct. Perhaps the comic highlight of the play is the seduction scene between Elmire and Tartuffe, with an incredibly dim Orgon hiding under a table, but there are other, littler moments as well—the way Marianne keeps straightening her ridiculous hair bow or the way she and Valere try to “fight,” for example, or the way a pianist (scene changes are accompanied by brief musical interludes) suddenly gets carried away in the midst of dialogue. You may also get a little kick out of a bizarre interpretation of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face during the curtain calls.
Tartuffe continues through May 1; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.