Before Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, there was Tartuffe -- the title character of Moliere's play, and the latest FSU/Asolo Conservatory production.
Le plot summary ...
Tartuffe (Geoff Knox) is an itinerant street preacher in 17th-century France. Like Bakker and Swaggart in centuries to come, Tartuffe is saintly on the outside and oversexed within. Beneath Tartuffe's hard candy shell of religiosity, there lurks a soft, gooey core of lust. Slick, manipulative bastard that he is, Tartuffe keeps it well-hidden.
In the course of Moliere's play, Tartuffe latches onto Orgon (Tony Stopperan), a dull man of means in 17th-century France who seems to think that Tartuffe is Jesus' kid brother. After insinuating himself as Orgon's perpetual house guest, Tartuffe gets Orgon to promise him his daughter's hand in marriage (Ashley Scallon), thus voiding Orgon's original consent to her true love (Benjamin Boucvalt); Orgon also gives Tartuffe a claim to his estate. Creep that he is, Tartuffe remains dissatisfied. He still wants to get into the pants (or patalons) of Orgon's wife (Summer Dawn Wallace). After Orgon hides under a table, Tartuffe's scheme is exposed. Happily, Orgon's wife isn't screwed. Sadly, Tartuffe has the deed to Orgon's estate. Orgon is screwed -- along with everyone else. Mais bien sur, Louis XIV appears like a deus ex machina from above and sets things straight. Moral order is restored and the charlatan punished. The music of Lady Gaga's Poker Face plays.
It's a fun ride. Beneath the pomp and ceremony, Richard Wilbur's rhymed couplet translation is smart -- though it can't disguise the artificiality of Moliere's original. (Basically, the characters make speeches, one at a time.) But that's OK. Director Wes Grantom's production zips along with the speed of a screwball comedy. (In a recent radio interview, Grantom said this pace is true to the productions of the time. Audiences were sharp back then.) The performances are great -- especially Megan DeLay as Dorine, the family maid, who functions as a human reality principle. She stands for common sense. Not heresy. The same can be said of the playwright, Moliere. His play makes that clear. Very clear.
Moliere seems to spend half his time saying, "My target is religious hypocrisy. Not religion. I love religion, especially Catholic religion. Let's be very clear on that point." The playwright spends the rest of his time kissing King Louis XIV's ass. It didn't help. Moliere got in trouble anyway. I can't help but think Moliere saw it coming -- but he wrote the play anyway. Why?
Because it mattered to him.
Moliere stuck his neck out to write this play. He took the risk of pissing the king off -- a king with absolute power. He knew the risks.
But he wrote it anyway.
I can't help but think that it was personal to Moliere. That he'd seen people burned by pseudo-saintly charlatans speaking in the name of God. His friends, people he cared about. Beneath Moliere's fine language, there's a white-hot anger. And a truth.
Tartuffe may be a fictional character. But Tartuffery is very real.
And bullshit is eternal.
In 1664, 1912 or 2011, the principle holds true: If someone tells you, "God commands you to give me money," that's the time to run for the hills.
Or hit them.
Through May 1
FSU/Asolo Conservatory production
Historic Asolo Theatre
5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota