In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Randall Anderson and David Flores in "Tartuffe" at Off The Wall Theatre. (PHOTO: Dale Gutzman)

Gutzman and "Tartuffe" meet on stage for a riotous laugh-filled show

The scandalous bite is gone from this "Tartuffe," but it's been replaced by taking a 400-year-old classic French comedy and turning it into present day laughs that mix "Laugh-In" and the "Marx Brothers" with a little bit of Rev. Jimmy Swaggart thrown in for good measure

It is only Dale Gutzman, his sharp tongued pen and his sometimes cranked sense of humor who can come up with a concoction like the production that opened Thursday at Off The Wall Theatre.

You might want to be familiar with the normal version of Moliere's play before you go see this one, but in reality, it's not necessary. This one stands tall all by itself.

The original "Tartuffe" was written in 1664 and was immediately censored by King Louis XIV. It seems that the play offended the religious leaders in France because the main character, Tartuffe himself, was a pious religious evangelist who stimulated a fanatic following but who was given away by the temptations of food, finances and, perhaps the most grievous, flesh.

The play has been performed so often and the title character has been seen so often that the very word "tartuffe" has become to mean a religious hypocrite, or a hypocritical pretender to excellence of any kind. An example or appropriate use would be would be that (insert names like Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Newt Gingrich) is a tartuffe because of his claim of piety was sullied by his sexual indiscretions.

Moliere's play was seen as a serious assault on religion hiding under a blanket of comedic characters.

There is nothing serious about Gutzman's version. This one is one gigantic laughfest – after the first five minutes, which almost sent me to my car. Let me get those first five minutes out of the way.

This play is written in couplets. That's two rhyming lines coming one after the other. They have the same meter. Think the first two lines of almost any limerick you know. Acting a play in verse takes skill and rehearsal. In many cases, it takes advance training.

The unfortunate start of this play features the pompous Mme. Pernelle, played by Kristin Pagenkopf who, judging by this performance, has at best only a nodding acquaintance with how to act verse. She had some kind of curious accent that had no resemblance to any other cast member, and she managed to stop her delivery after every rhyme word. I truly was thinking about leaving, and I never walk out.

But then she exited the stage, and the play took off like a speeding train that had jumped the tracks.

It featured three actors who had such comfort with verse and such multi-layered and detailed character skills that the laughter from the audience sometimes drowned out the dialogue on the stage.

First we met the house servant, Dorine, played by Marilyn White. She may well have been a servant, but in reality, she let us know from the first moment that she was both the conscience and the ready shoulder to cry on for the entire household. White gets our ears accustomed the the humor and loveliness of Gutzman's translation.

Then we get the entrance of the man of the house, Orgon, played by Randall Anderson, who leads the love fest for Tartuffe. He is clearly blinded by the holy man. Dorine tells Orgon of the events of the day, including the illness of his wife. After each difficult event is relayed, he replies, "And, Tartuffe?" He's far more concerned with his passionate affair with Tartuffe than with the rest of the world.

Anderson has been a fixture in community theater for years in Milwaukee and now, thanks to Guzman, he is becoming a splendid professional with a surprising range. He's a valuable addition.

And finally we see Tartuffe himself, played with magnificent slither by Milwaukee favorite David Flores. Slovenly and obviously lustful, he spins his web around Orgon, gaining approval for a change in his will to leave everything to him and even tacit approval of a kiss of Orgon's wife. Flores has a range of emotions that he leaves no doubt about exactly which Tartuffe is in front of us.

I won't reveal the complex journey to the unsurprising unveiling of the holy man, but there are moments that description here cannot come close to doing justice.

White and Flores find themselves in the room together, and Flores complains about the jiggling of her breasts in her dress. White responds by placing a napkin over her barren upper chest and then leans back at almost a 45 degree angle. She does the rest of the scene in that position and exits the same way. The howls were immense.

Then Tartuffe finds himself in the room alone with Elmire, Orgon's wife, played by Jacqueline Roush. She is trying to entice him to reveal his lust while Orgon lays under a covered table. It is a moment in which she is trying to prove the unreligious behavior by the priest. The back and forth of the seduction/non-seduction is one of those moments that remains vivid long after the curtain has fallen.

There is no danger that this "Tartuffe" will ever inspire the kind of outrageous reaction that it did 400 years ago. The one thing it will do, however, is inspire laughter unlike many of us often enjoy.

"Tartuffe" runs through Sept. 27 and information of tickets and showtimes is available here.


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