Aged to Perfection

337 years after its debut, Molire's Tartuffe has still got it.

Forget that Molière's black comedy Tartuffe deals with serious themes like deception and seduction. From the moment the lights rise on this effervescent Stray Dog staging and several members of Orgon's indolent family are seen skipping rope, the emphasis here is on farce. One of this show's many felicitous qualities is its consistency of manner — a savvy understanding that this verse play continues to be staged more than three centuries after its Paris debut not because of its pithy social observations, but because it's still so much fun.

And forget seventeenth-century Paris. This production is as immediate as Cirque du Soleil. The large ring that fills the center of the stage floor suggests that we're watching an extended circus act. In that ring is a painting of a proud peacock, which in turn is brought to life by Molière's foolish characters. It's no accident that peacock feathers adorn Lavonne Byers' hair. As Elmire, the mistress of Orgon's household, Byers sometimes struts and preens. At other times she's so lethargic she can barely lift a finger. The cameo here is of a family to which bad things deserve to happen.

They do. The plot primarily concerns Orgon, who has turned to religion as a balm for his midlife crisis. He has befriended Tartuffe (Mark Zoole), a wily opportunist who fakes piety in order to rob and even cuckold his newfound protector. "He can detect/A mortal sin where you'd least suspect," Orgon brags of his spiritual mentor, thus making Tartuffe sound strikingly similar to any number of current professional puritans.

"Those whose hearts are truly pure and lowly/Don't make a flashy show of being holy," Orgon's more common-sensical brother-in-law replies. "There's a vast difference, so it seems to me/Between true piety and hypocrisy." But let's not be too harsh on Tartuffe. Although Molière described his comedy as a satire on religious hypocrisy, translator Richard Wilbur disagrees. This charlatan is no hypocrite, Wilbur suggests; Tartuffe is merely a con man exploiting the situation that's been handed to him.

The production, which has been directed with brisk panache by Gary F. Bell, spoofs Orgon's entire family. Elmire drinks too much; the daughter (Megan Rodd) is infantile. The lowly maid Dorine (Jennifer M. Theby, who here seems more like a member of the family than a servant) is brighter than any of her employers. Only when Orgon proposes that Tartuffe should marry his daughter (she is to be "Tartuffe-ified") does the family finally take action to unmask his duplicity.

Myron Freedman's Orgon is the spark plug that keeps this bright engine firing. Since making his presence felt in the St. Louis theater scene more than a year ago, Freedman has become just about indispensable. He seems to revel in approaching the precipice of excess and then pulling back. Normally Orgon is portrayed as a humorless straight man, befuddled by all the nonsense that surrounds him. Here Freedman happily transforms the character into one of the Marx Brothers.

But the production's real star, as he has been ever since this translation appeared in 1963, is poet Wilbur. His sublime rhymes are like quicksilver: They constantly surprise. Too often in verse plays, the viewer is ahead of the translation. Rarely does that occur with Wilbur. Consider, for instance, this couplet delivered by Orgon's chastising mother (Diane Peterson, who effectively establishes the evening's tone early on): "You know what they say about still waters/I pity parents with secretive daughters." There is no way that a viewer can anticipate that rhyme. It's only the occasional actor here who succumbs to a singsong cadence. The common-sense nature of Wilbur's dialogue precludes it.

Perhaps Wilbur understands Tartuffe even better than did its author. Is the play a satire? George S. Kaufman once described satire as "what closes on Saturday night." But here we are, 337 years after its debut, and thanks to Richard Wilbur and a sprightly staging, Tartuffe is still the freshest, wittiest, most relevant comedy in town.