Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant
We sometimes assume classic theatre, by virtue of its age, will be stodgy or dated. However, Cup-A-Jo’s skillfully executed production of Moliere’s 1664 French satire, “Tartuffe” (adapted by Richard Wilbur), reminds us that in the right hands, the classics are just as fresh as any contemporary play.
“Tartuffe” follows the wiles of its hypocritical titular character who has wormed his way into a wealthy family where patriarch Orgon (Joe Cannito) is blind to Tartuffe’s (Everett Lowe) grossly blatant manipulations.
Cup-A-Jo reinvents “Tartuffe” without making it feel forced. “Tartuffe” is ultimately a play about exposure. Thanks to stellar pacing from director Joanna Lowe, you practically drool for the conniving Tartuffe to be undone. Lowe purposefully takes the concept of exposure a step further by having the actors exposed at almost every moment. Instead of tucking the cast away backstage for their pre-show prep, you somewhat uncomfortably walk by them on the way to your seats.
The discomfort at walking by the cast pre-show is induced by the unusualness of it, like peeking at unwrapped Christmas presents. It feels wrong, but Lowe willingly invites our gaze. The actors are simply cordoned off behind pink lines on the floor that demarcate the onstage/offstage spaces. It’s a brilliant way to visually foreshadow the play’s themes of exposure and transformation.
The household’s bifurcation over Tartuffe and the wildly opposing views of him by Orgon and his mother, Madame Pernelle (Casey Cunningham), versus the rest of the household seem more appropriate than ever in the current political climate that has bred an increasingly divided America. “Tartuffe” uncomfortably reminds us that perception is reality. Two people can witness the same thing and arrive at opposing conclusions, and Orgon is a leading indicator of that truth. Like any steadfast believer, his views do not crumble easily, and Cannito makes him credible.
Joanna Lowe casts actor Casey Cunningham as both Madame Pernelle, the loyalist to Tartuffe, and Valere, the fiancé of Orgon’s daughter, Marianne (Amy Dick). It’s a lovely case of genderbending as the male Casey initially comes onstage looking like a clone of Tweety bird’s owner, Granny, complete with comically overstuffed boobs practically grazing his bellybutton. Later, he reappears as Valere, who gets backburnered by Orgon for who else but Tartuffe. The two characters are on opposing sides, but in playing both characters, Cunningham provides hope that two disparate souls can find commonality.
Marianne’s role is thankless at best as her character is clearly poorly equipped to deal with the world at large. She is a follower and a pleaser, not a thinker or a leader. Amy Dick is able to give the role some pizzazz thanks to her foil, Dorine (Marsha Mayhak), who easily steals the show as the uproarious housemaid. She’s a brandy-chugging mistress of ceremonies who works for the greater good of the household, despite her recognition that they’re not fully deserving. She speaks combatively with Orgon, standing up for Marianne when she can’t stand up for herself, and humorously purses her lips to be kissed by him at one point, which she already knows will elicit his dismissal.
Everett Lowe as title character Tartuffe can be exasperatingly present at times, but showmanship is the core of his character, so it’s not off base. To return to the theme of exposure, Joanna Lowe peels back one more layer by keeping Tartuffe on a separate elevated stage that’s somewhat behind the audience before he appears onstage. It’s fascinating because he responds nonverbally to what’s being said, as if he’s monitoring the whole household via some invisible camera feeds in a security room. He shows us the power in the pointed raise of an eyebrow, which he mostly raises in a hand mirror as he admires himself, an early indicator of Tartuffe’s narcissism and misguided resolve in his own character.
Cup-A-Jo’s production of “Tartuffe” plays through August 31st at the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, 5006 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15224. For more information, you can visit Cup-A-Jo’s Facebook page, and tickets can be purchased at the door for $20 each via cash or PayPal.