Huntington’s modernized ‘Tartuffe’ loses something

The company of the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Tartuffe, directed by Peter DuBois, playing November 10 – December 10, 2017, Avenue of the Arts / Huntington Avenue Theatre. © Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

BOSTON – Moliere may have written the piece in the 17th Century, but many of the great plays are movable feasts.

So while Moliere intended “Tartuffe” to be generally a treatise on religious hypocrisy, it’s obvious Huntington Theatre Company Artistic Director Peter DuBois also has other fish to fry in the current production at the Huntington Avenue Theatre.

He hasn’t made any specific references to any politician in particular, but it’s clear by the way he has staged “Tartuffe” he is talking about the here and now, and while the theme of religious hypocrisy is still there, he is targeting charlatans of all kind, but especially the political ones.

DuBois chose the Ranjit Bolt translation complete with its eight-beats-per-line rhyming couplets, which takes a little bit of getting used to, but the cast handles it with aplomb.

It also gets little bit funky matching the contemporary setting, which includes cellphones and selfie sticks, with the text born centuries ago.

But DuBois has carefully shifted emphasis from Moliere’s tale, which was a class story of a poor man from a small village relieving a wealthy bourgeois landowner– who was in tight with the king – of his undeserved wealth.

Paula Plum and Frank Wood in “Tartuffe” at the Huntington Theatre Company.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Here Tartuffe is a lone wolf out to get all he can get any way he can get it – if it sounds like anyone in the curent political climate, the resemblance is purely intentional.

Tony winner Frank Wood’s portrayal of Orgon seems strangely muted for most of the evening, right up almost to the point where he is almost hit over the head by Tartuffe’s treachery.

But DuBois, in clearly connecting it to the present political scene, sometimes seems to be working at cross purposes. In modernizing the piece to such a contemporary setting, it seems all the stranger that someone with the wit and will to amass a vast fortune today could fall victim to a con man as lightweight as Tartuffe.

But then, perhaps, a lightweight charlatan with a pious attitude – at least in public — having his way in today’s world was exactly what DuBois was going for with his more contemporary setting.

Tartuffe (Brent Gelman), largely unseen in the first act, is described in less-than-glowing terms by the other members of the extended household

As the play opens housekeeper Dorine (Jane Pfitsch), a take-charge type, is right on top of what’s happening in the household as in in is s Orgon’s wife Elmire (Melissa Miller)

Cléante (Matthew J. Harris), Orgon’s sensible brother-in-law, thinks Orgon can be reasoned with, but that view isn’t sharedbyOrgon’s bratty son Damis (Matthew Bretschneider) and willful daughter Mariane (Sarah Oakes Muirhead).

Mariane is engaged to Valère (Gabriel Brown), but Orgon, on the way to giving away the store, is keen on marrying Mariane off to Tartuffe instead,.

Paula Plum has a nice comic turn as Orgon’s mother Madame Pernelle, and Tartuffe has long since had the wool pulled down over her eyes.

Tartuffe also has bedroom eyes for the comely Elmire, and makes no bones about it.

Gelman’s Tartuffe – complete with crucifix and pieties worthy of a Times Square watch salesman – is able to completely flummox Orgon.

The production values are simply sublime. DuBois and set designer Alexander Dodge have created what appears to be a very expensive New York City townhouse, which could best be described as Louis XIV meets Manhattan chic, with Louis XIV furniture in a modern New York City townhouse.

Anita Yavich dresses the show’s women in gorgeous modern form-fitting dresses or more baroque costumes and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind’s work and its varying hues complement the white and gold design of the set.

The humor and wit of Moliere’s words remain intact in the Huntington production, but again, it does require a willing suspension of disbelief that someone who has the wits and the wile to accumulate a great deal of money and a milti-million-dollar palace can be tricked out of it all by someone who appears to be a third-rate con man who wouldn’t last a minute in New York City.

The Huntington Theatre Company production of Moliere’s “Tartuffe.” Directed by Peter DuBois. Translation by Ranjit Bolt. Set design by Alexander Dodge. Choreography by Daniel Pelzig. Original music by Peter Golub. Costume design by Anita Yavich. Sound design by Ben Emerson. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. At the Huntington Avenue Theatre through Dec. 10.