Friday, April 19, 2024

IMPRESSIONS: Centenary’s “Tartuffe” Gives Us 1600s “Saltburn” with a Happy Ending Through March 3

“Tartuffe” is now playing at Sitnik Theater at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown until March 3. For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://www.centenarystageco.org/csc-tartuffe

From left: Carl Wallnau as Tartuffe, Nick Bettens as Damis and Randall Duk Kim as Orgon in Centenary Stage Company’s production of Tartuffe. Courtesy of Centenary Stage Company. Photo Credit: Trevor Callahan

Fans of the 2023 movie and internet sensation “Saltburn” may feel deja vu upon seeing Centenary Stage Company’s production of Molière’s “Tartuffe,” playing at the Sitnick Theater in Hackettstown through March 3. They’re almost the same story.

It goes like this: a seemingly down-on-his-luck outsider is taken in by a wealthy family. Though some family members suspect the outsider of ill intentions, he continues to draw on their generous hospitality, all the while accruing more influence and control. But he isn’t what he seems.

Too late, the family recognizes the outsider for what he is: a conniving parasite who has destroyed them from the inside.

The plot works as well now as it did in 1664, and Centenary presents a charming package for the story. And thankfully, it doesn’t end with its own version of that infamous concluding dance. “Tartuffe” is a comedy in the old-school tradition, so it’s no spoiler to say that all ends happily. 

I’m starting with a comparison to something modern and familiar because “Tartuffe” might feel deeply unfamiliar to audiences on first impression. Things start promisingly enough. The curtain opens on Matthew Imhoff’s tastefully appointed set, depicting a house with the kind of exposed wooden beams and garden windows that would drive realtors rabid in today’s market. Out stroll various characters in Staci Cocuzza’s sumptuous costumes, all ruffles, knee-high leather boots and the other delightful frippery of a period piece. 

Then the dialogue begins. The original French script was “translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur” according to the playbill. By verse, they mean rhyming couplets. 

It may sound alien at first. Hang in there, brave theater-goer. By and large, the actors successfully wrestle the dialogue out of its nursery rhyme cadence until it fades into the background, and you can simply bask in the comedic energy of the characters.

And there is plenty to bask in. As Orgon, the gullible head of the house, Randall Duk Kim shows how much nuance a master actor can express with a single responsive grunt. You may know him from his extensive work on stage and in film, in everything from Shakespeare to the John Wick franchise.

He alchemizes that lifetime of craftsmanship into a stage presence that magnetizes the gaze and pulls it onstage. Even when he’s just reacting to another character’s monologue, it’s impossible to look away. 

Orgon butts heads with everyone else in the household, who all see Tartuffe for the conman he is, but his special nemesis is the maid Dorine (an impressive Anne Occhiogrosso). Dorine’s mighty matriarchal presence makes for a fun combination with Orgon’s weak attempts to impose authority.

We don’t meet the titular character until Act I is almost finished. So it’s an utter delight when Carl Wallnau comes onstage at last as a finely etched portrait of the master manipulator. Tartuffe is the ultimate chameleon, sometimes sniffling like a little boy that nobody likes him, sometimes invoking the Lord with a thunderous voice and other times drooling shamelessly over someone else’s wife.

He’s Grima Wormtongue disguised as Moses, and Wallnau makes us believe every moment of it.

The play truly shines when the actors showcase their chemistry.

As Orgon, Kim draws both laughs and sympathy as he comforts his daughter Mariane (Erin Clark channeling Princess Peach) in one moment and tries to sputter a threat in another, only to trail off.

Mariane gets a funny sequence in which she and her love Valere (a winsome Luis Rodriguez) play a game of breakup chicken because each is too stubborn to apologize to the other. The standout scene pits Tartuffe against Elmire, the lady of the house (played with utmost aristocratic poise by Diana Cherkas).

It’s physical comedy done right.

“Tartuffe” runs for about two hours and 15 minutes, but it won’t seem that long. Even if it comes quickly, the play’s ending feels soothing for the soul. In our time, the Tartuffes of the world are rarely held accountable. It’s nice to spend a few hours laughing at some goofy situations and see justice prevail in the end. 

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.