Tale of scam artist draws laughs today

Review: At Olney, centuries-old `Tartuffe' is still a tasty confection. Let `Tartuffe' pull wool over your eyes

April 18, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

With its circular central platform surrounded by white pillars, the set for Olney Theatre Center's production of "Tartuffe" looks like a cross between a wedding cake and a giant music box. And, indeed, director Halo Wines' solid staging of Moliere's 17th-century comedy is a pleasantly harmonious confection.

In the play, Orgon, a gullible Paris aristocrat, falls under the sway of a flim-flam holy man named Tartuffe. If Orgon's home is depicted as an elegant music box -- complete with tinkly music and dance interludes between scenes -- the pseudo-pious Tartuffe sounds the sole discordant note.

Orgon is so thoroughly duped by Tartuffe, he signs over his house to this phony, selects him as his son-in-law and simply refuses to believe anyone so saintly could have designs on his wife.

In other words, Tartuffe has fallen into a con man's paradise, and in the title role, Mitchell Hebert leaves no doubt his character revels in his unexpectedly exalted position. Even in a long, lank wig, Hebert looks a little too wholesome, but his performance more than compensates.

When he speaks to Alan Wade's foolishly fawning Orgon, Hebert has a way of purring out such words as "trust" and "pious," with an almost hypnotic effect. And when, despite irrefutable evidence of his guest's villainy, Orgon only increases his generosity to Tartuffe, Hebert pulls off a marvelous mixture of grateful sobs and barely veiled guffaws.

Almost everyone else sees through Tartuffe, and among the most noteworthy naysayers are David Marks, as Orgon's increasingly frustrated brother-in-law Cleante, and MaryBeth Wise as an impudent, outspoken maid. Julie-Ann Elliott portrays Orgon's much put-upon wife as a woman as shrewd as her husband is deluded.

Although many supporting players speak Richard Wilbur's rhymed translation with too sing-songy a flavor, one of the only significant false notes is the depiction of Orgon's daughter's sweetheart. For some reason, Chris- topher Lane portrays this decent fellow as an over-the-top fop -- an unusual choice for a character who is supposed to be the paragon of potential sons-in-law.

Visually, the production drips with frills and ruffles. That's the period, and costume designer Lonie Fullerton sticks to it. She adds a touch of whimsy, however, by highlighting the clothing and accompanying wigs with frosting-like pastel tones that reinforce the overall wedding cake motif of designer James Kronzer's set.

But while Olney has staged this charming production in period style, don't let the finery fool you. "Tartuffe" is in no danger of going out of date. Charlatans will be with us as long as men are gullible. And though director Wines' interpretation may not add any particular new insights,

`Tartuffe'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; matinees 2 p.m. Sundays, most Saturdays and Thursday; through May 14

Tickets: $15-$32

Call: 301-924-3400

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