Theatre Hopkins' 'Tartuffe' seems right at home in a 1950s setting

May 06, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

If Moliere's archetypal hypocrite, Tartuffe, were alive today, he'd probably be a TV evangelist with a 900 number for phone-in donations.

At Theatre Hopkins, Tony Colavito doesn't make the character's sleazy duplicity that obvious, and director Suzanne Pratt doesn't update the play to the present. But she does move the 17th century French comedy to the 1950s, and Colavito is slimy enough to pass for, say, a used car salesman -- one with a taste for Caddies and Jags.

"Tartuffe" can rise or fall based on the portrayal of the title character, and Colavito doesn't disappoint. Portraying a self-professed religious ascetic, he makes no mystery of Tartuffe's true nature. In his first few minutes on stage, he files his nails, combs his mustache and flashes his diamond pinky ring. Colavito is especially good at giving the audience little sideways glances that leave no doubt that his piety is a pose.

And though some of his fellow actors get a bit sing-songy in their delivery of Richard Wilbur's rhymed translation, Colavito's Tartuffe sounds right at home with flowery verse.

Of course, con artists are only successful if they find willing patsies. Tom Blair's Orgon isn't merely a patsy, he's a blubbering fool, nearly losing his home, daughter and wife to Tartuffe's hoodwinking. Blair's performance would have more of an edge, however, if Orgon weren't quite so dim; if he presented a greater challenge to Tartuffe, he would increase our appreciation of the artistry in the con.

This would also help bridge the gap between Orgon and the characters Tartuffe fails to outsmart, most of whom receive slick performances, particularly those of Patricia Coleman as Orgon's intelligent and loyal wife; Jack Manion as her concerned brother; Molly Moores as Orgon's sweet, innocent daughter (this role will be played by Leisa Kelley the last two weeks of the run); and Cherie Weinert as the household's outspoken maid. Also worthy of mention is Rick Bavaria in the small role of a gentlemanly bailiff.

Updating the play to the 1950s calls to mind Center Stage's recent updating of "Othello" to the same decade. In both cases, the use of modern dress makes the fashion signals more readily accessible. It might be difficult to recognize Tartuffe as a dandy if all of the men were in frilly 17th century French garb, but when Colavito comes out in a silk robe and pajamas, the message is clear.

More importantly, the 1950s was one of the last periods when male machismo was widely accepted and the role of "the weaker sex" was narrowly defined. With that in mind, it's interesting to note that despite the vast difference in tone, these two productions emphasize a similar plot point -- in both "Othello" and "Tartuffe," the women prove wiser than their men.

"Tartuffe"

Where: Theatre Hopkins, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. May 22 and 2:15 p.m. Sundays. Through May 29

Tickets: $8 and $10

Call: (410) 516-7159

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