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Texas Tartuffe

Northside Theatre Company moves Molière's famous farce to an American backyard

By Marianne Messina

NORTHSIDE THEATRE COMPANY relocates the middle-class family of Molière's comedy Tartuffe from its 17th-century Paris drawing room to a Texas backyard in the 1950s. The barbecue adds double entendre to the word "frankly," and with clever lighting and design, Richard T. Orlando (director/set designer) and Dan Sparks (lighting design) have created the stunning illusion of an in-ground pool. In this Tartuffe, archaic, aphoristic language falls out in a Southern drawl, and the Texas 10-gallon hat replaces the Louis XIV 10-inch ringlets.

Basically, Tartuffe (Roger Hooper) is the "uninvited guest," except that he's been invited by the master of the house, Orgon (James Bigelow). While everyone in the family—Orgon's wife, Elmire (Summer Reeves), his daughter, Mariane (Kristi Katerra Martin), his son, Damis (Tony Le), his wife's brother, Clint (Ian Riley), and Mariane's promised fiance, Valére (Kamran Arabi-Barnes)—sees Tartuffe as a "wretched vagabond," Orgon "dotes upon" him like a "brother" and "hero."

A sort of Pat Robertson (in 17th-century France, he would have been a right-wing Catholic Jansenist), Tartuffe practices moral/sexual hypocrisy whenever he can. "Cover up that bosom, which I can't endure to look on," he says, throwing a handkerchief at the cleavage of chatty maid Dorine (Lissa Colleen Ferreira). But later when he's trying to make a play for Orgon's wife, he says, "Though pious, I am none the less a man," and uses every flimsy pretext in the book to put his hands on her. The family members—particularly Dorine—play hide-and-snoop in hopes of righting all wrongs.

The outdoor setting, with its deck chairs, white ivy-adorned fence and window casing for people to spy through, has characters hiding near windows and behind hedges rather than in drawing room closets. And then there's the infamous table scene, a trio timing feat. In this production, as Orgon hides under an ill-fitting table, his ungainly predicament upstages the cat-and-mouse game going on above him between Tartuffe and his wife.

Except for a tendency to overact the distraught and outraged parts (Mariane and Damis), Northside's players deliver lucid performances. Ferreira is strong as the savvy maid who has more wits about her than any family member. (Her costume, however, is an enigma beyond all historic recognition.) Dorine also has great lines, like her comeback to Tartuffe when he claims her cleavage will incite him to sin: "I could see you stripped from head to foot, and all your hide not tempt me in the least."

Looking like an egg-shaped Johnny Cash with his portly frame dressed all in black, Roger Hooper gives Tartuffe a slimy, asthmatic cast. Against his advances, Summer Reeves plays a pleasant, unflappable Elmire. James Bigelow, more the handsome cowboy than the aging man of means, plays a man whose macho feels challenged at every fence post.

The production stays on a strictly humorous surface level. Bigelow brings little subtext to Orgon (like why is he really so attracted to this Tartuffe character?), so some of the more lascivious potential (that incestuous bit with his daughter) is undeveloped. But the production is as accessible a Tartuffe as you'll find. The Southern drawl slows the normally rapid-fire elocution exercises down enough to let lines flow clearly off the tongue (though expressions like "zounds" sound a little out of place). And the Texanized speech subjects names to interesting transformations. Cleante becomes Clint, Damis often ends up "Dumbass" and Valere comes out sounding suspiciously like Velour. Akin to a dip in the pool, Northside's Tartuffe makes light, refreshing summer fare.

Tartuffe, a Northside Theatre Company presentation, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through July 3 at the Northside Theatre, 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $12/$15. (408.288.7820)

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From the June 15-21, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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