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Good Almost to the Last Drop

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written by Moliere

Directed by Michael Hammond

With Anand Sarwate 01, Matthew Norwood ’99, Rachael Butcher 00, Welkin Pope 00, John C. Hume, Niyati Ghandi 02, Sarah Cohen 00, Thomas Cork 00, Dan Katz 03, and others

In Kresge Little Theatre until April 29

Presented by MIT Dramashop

In Les Miserables, Hugo, singing praise to Paris’s spirit, mentions that “it has Pascal, Regnier, Corneille, Descartes, Jean-Jacques, Voltaire for all moments, Moliere for all centuries.” Hugo is quite right: Moliere is indeed a playwright for all centuries. Moliere’s plays are flawlessly constructed, tightly plotted, and irresistibly hilarious. As a result, their appeal doesn’t wane: since the all of his comedies are based on human idiosyncrasies and foibles, and since the human character hasn’t changed much in the past few centuries (and probably won’t in any foreseeable future), this appeal is as instantaneous now as it was three centuries ago.

Dramashop’s production of Tartuffe uses this directness as a main mode of operation, resulting in a production that is startlingly effective, assuredly paced, and very, very funny. The first thing that one notices about Tartuffe is that its physical setting, time period, and societal milieu are all changed: instead of upper class France in mid-seventeenth century, we have upper-middle-class America in present time (or, perhaps, the late eighties: that Plexiglas table is distinct enough to set the period all by itself). This change is certainly assisted by the translation, which, keeping Moliere’s cleverly rhymed dialogue, uses the everyday dialect of American English. What is almost shocking about this change is that it does not matter in the least. One would expect some conflict between the play and its setting; none is in evidence here (the last five minutes excepted), for Tartuffe is so universally written, it has the great capacity to work in any setting -- and feel like it was written specifically for that setting.

There’s nothing period-specific in Tartuffe, anyway: the play is a swirl of comic escapades around the titular character (Anand Sarwate ’01), a pious individual who is given shelter and sustenance by the wealthy patriarch Orgon (Matthew Norwood ’99). Instantly, Orgon’s family splits into two camps: Orgon and his mother Mme. Pernelle (Sarah Cohen ’00) are convinced that Tartuffe is a saint, while just about everyone else insists that he’s a con man, intent on living in Orgon’s house, eating Orgon’s food, and bedding Orgon’s wife and daughter. Moliere does one great trick: he doesn’t let Tartuffe himself on the stage until everyone else has expressed his or her opinion about this singular character, creating an unusual and intense suspense: character suspense. As a result, when Tartuffe finally appears, the play gets a major jolt of energy and switches into a high gear.

Another reason for this energy jolt is Anand Sarwate’s performance. Among a flawless cast (not a single weak performance here), he got the juiciest part, and does it justice. Tartuffe wouldn’t be what he is without exhibiting complete conviction in what he says, and Sarwate is hilariously effective. His scenes with Norwood and Niyati Ghandi ’02 (as Elmire, Orgon’s wife) are crackling with comic brio. Here, Tartuffe is, first and foremost, a great actor himself, and Sarwate plays him as a consummate pro in multifaceted pretension.

Tartuffe’s main adversary is the maid Dorine, played by Rachael Butcher ’00. Adding this performance to her “scheming maid” repertoire, Butcher is all stance, style, and attitude. It is not quite as emotionally gripping as her performance in The Illusion a couple of years ago, since this one is presents a much more shallow character; but there’s such an abundance of well-placed glances and body language here, that it’s impossible to look at just about anyone else when she is on stage.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well, from Norwood’s exasperated straight man, to Cohen’s overbearing grandmother, to Thomas Cork’s lucid take on Cleant, the only level-headed person in the play, to Welkin Pope ’00 and John C. Hume displaying precise comic timing as two conflicted lovebirds.

The only moments when Tartuffe slows down are the choreographed interludes between the scenes. These interludes do provide ritualistic links to Moliere’s world, but they are detrimental to the breathless pacing.

The last five minutes, though, fall completely flat: the ending feels like a cop out. This is probably because the tiny but pivotal part of the King’s Counsel (Camilo Guaqueta ’03) is interpreted as a soulless bureaucrat, or because the dominant presence of the King is not prepared for enough (as opposed to the dominant presence of God, invoked by Tartuffe) -- the very end feels facile and disappointing, lacking the mirth of the rest of the production.