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In 'Tartuffe,' a fast-paced staging of multifaceted Moliere

"Rockin' Robin" might not be the expected overture for Moliere's "Tartuffe," one of the French dramatist's most famous comedic plays, but it certainly sets the tone for Sock and Buskin's modern re-telling.

As the rock-and-roll single pumps through the speakers, the main characters of the play bustle about the set, a multi-tiered jungle gym of slamming doors and windows. Wedding bells are clearly in the air as Dorine (Lauren Neal '11), the family's maid, scurries about, hanging engagement banners and balloons.

Elsewhere, the two young lovers Valere and Mariane (Max Posner '11 and Elizabeth Rothman '11) hop from window to window, kissing and celebrating euphorically.

Elmire (Elizabeth Morgan '10), the girl's stepmother, is busy dealing with her overbearing mother-in-law (Jing Xu '10). Damis (Gabe Gonzalez '12), the son and heir to the family fortune, holds a baseball bat to a piñata and mischievously runs about the house.

Doors open and close. Figures sprint from one room to another. Secrets abound. Thus the plot of the first act takes shape — there will be love, action, deception and some bizarre, but vastly entertaining, scenes ahead.

"Tartuffe" tells the tale of the easily duped Orgon (Matt Bauman '10), a wealthy businessman and proud patriarch to Elmire, Damis and Marianne, the bride-to-be.  Orgon has welcomed into his home the conniving Tartuffe (Aubie Merrylees '10), who claims to be a religious zealot but is actually a con artist manipulating Orgon's devotion. He lives in Orgon's house, eats his food and tries, albeit unsuccessfully, to seduce the beautiful Elmire.

Orgon is blind to Tartuffe's greed and ambition, going so far as to offer up his daughter's hand in marriage to the scheming hypocrite. Merrylees puts in a fantastic performance, his sleazy character coming to life as he struts about the stage, confident in his position in the household.

But there are several problems with Orgon's plan of pairing his daughter with the aggravating Tartuffe. First of all, Orgon has already promised to let Mariane marry Valere. Secondly, she — like everyone else except Orgon and his mother — despises Tartuffe. Damis is also troubled by this news: If Marianne does not marry Valere, he will not be able to marry Valere's sister. Forget about love triangles — this is more like a heptagon.

Amid all this drama, it is Dorine who holds everything together — and carries the first act. Neal's Dorine is packed full of energy and is absolutely hilarious as she tries to get the family out from under Tartuffe's thumb. Her sharp execution of the script — a contemporary-feeling verse translation — and fluidness on the stage had the audience in hysterics. She tumbles, runs and climbs — all while parrying the obstinate Orgon.

The rest of the cast also puts in energetic and crowd-pleasing performances during the first act. Valere and Marianne are endearing in their stereotypical teenage love affair. As Dorine says, "Lovers tongues are never still."  The two bicker, apologize and kiss like a real couple — and a tech-savvy one at that. Director Mia Rovegno chose to update Moliere's 1664 play by adding some technology — text messages between the two lovers are displayed on a screen above the stage; Facebook proudly shows Marianne's relationship status (from "engaged" to "it's complicated" back to "engaged" as the play progresses); and Valere's iPod adds an interesting soundtrack to the action. When "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls comes on as Valere turns his back on Marianne, believing he has lost her to Tartuffe, the audience can't help laughing at the juxtaposition of old text meeting new tech.

Lee Taglin ‘10, as Orgon's brother-in-law Cleante, brings a more subdued — though equally entertaining — humor to the stage. As the voice of reason, he is often called upon to keep Orgon and Damis, the two hot-heads of the family, in check. His restrained delivery is paired well with Orgon's over-the-top antics — wild gestures and extreme facial expressions as excessive as the venti Starbucks cup he always seems to be slurping out of.

Whether out of weaknesses in the performance or short-changing in Moliere's text, Morgan's Elmire seems disappointingly halfhearted in a first-act verbal duel with Tartuffe. This was particularly surprising given Morgan's stellar performance in the second act, finally debunking Tartuffe and making her husband see the light.

In Rovegno's production, the two acts take place in starkly different worlds. After intermission, the household has come completely under Tartuffe's control as Orgon has disinherited Gonzalez's irrefutably entertaining Damis after a confrontation with Tartuffe.

The set, previously warm and inviting, is now bleak and bare. The doors and walls of the house are gone, bright white light illuminates every corner, video cameras record the family's movements and the family members are forced to wear uniforms. Tartuffe will have no secrets in what is now his household. The first act's innocuous scenes of eavesdropping and Facebook-stalking have taken on a sinister character in Tartuffe's new police state.

Morgan's Elmire can't stand this for very long, however. She commands the stage and lets her attitude shine through as she takes the audience on a hilarious thrill ride and Moliere sends even more obstacles for the household to overcome before the lights come up.
With a well-rounded cast, side-splitting interpretation of the text and creative staging, "Tartuffe" — all about the madness of falling in love, in lust, in debt or insane — is delightful.

"Tartuffe" continues Oct. 1 through Oct. 4 in Leeds Theatre, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.


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