There are so many smart line deliveries in the Prenzie Players' Tartuffe that I could gush over each one here and still not have space for half of them. From Stephanie Moeller's forceful proclamation "I'm timid!" to Jessica Sheridan's delightfully wicked warning about being stuck with the unbearable title character "each day ... and night ... for life," Friday's performance had me cackling over and over again. I won't, however, point to any more specific line interpretations, for fear of ruining the element of surprise. A large part of the production's humor lies in hearing its words delivered in unexpected ways.
Molière's best-known work involves a family whose head of household, Orgon, is taken in by a man named Tartuffe, whom the rest of the clan (excluding Orgon's mother) see for what he is: a falsely pious con artist. Consequently, the family sets in motion a plan to reveal Tartuffe's immorality by exposing his flirtation with Orgon's wife, and while the play itself is funny, the Prenzies, under the direction of Jeremy Mahr, make it hysterical.
As is common with the Prenzies, Tartuffe features female actors playing male roles and a male actor playing a female, a risky practice that can easily come across as gender-bending casting merely for the sake of gender-bending casting. (Here, no fewer than five characters are played by actors of the opposite sex.) Yet because of the adept portrayals, none of it seems gimmicky - not even the casting choice that seemed the most likely to be: Andy Curtiss as family matriarch Madame Pernelle. Looking not unlike Dana Carvey's Saturday Night Live Church Lady, Curtiss acts in earnest and avoids caricature. There isn't a "nudge-nudge, wink-wink, I'm a man playing a woman" air to his performance; instead, he wisely plays the part (fairly) straight, allowing Molière's hilarious lines to express the humor, and I think his performance is funnier for it.
Denise Yoder has the weighty task of enacting Tartuffe, and while her effort to play masculine is evident and seems to stymie her interpretation a bit, she effectively portrays her con without overt smarminess. Tartuffe's insincere piety, presented to gain the trust (and, eventually, the possessions) of Orgon, actually seems sincere, which makes it more believable that the wealthy man could be taken in by this schemer. Rather than wearing feigned goodness so obviously on his sleeve, Yoder's Tartuffe is subversively fake in his moral superiority.
Unlike Yoder, some of Tartuffe's other actors appear rather enslaved to Molière's rhymes, which affects the natural rhythms of their deliveries. None of the cast members, however, is disappointing. As Orgon, Jeb Makula struggles to make his pre-planned reactions seem organic, but delivers the emotion behind his lines with sometimes-gut-busting gusto. Moeller beautifully shades Orgon's somewhat air-headed daughter Mariane - first betrothed to her true love, Valere (also played by Curtiss), and then to Tartuffe against her will - with efforts to be polite and respectful, mixed with undertones of nervous frustration. Portraying Mariane's brother Damis, Brianne Kinney has an appropriately boyish look and a notable ebb and flow of anger behind her character's attempts to defend his mother's honor.
I'm smitten with Kitty Israel for her believably composed, demure deliveries as Orgon's wife Elmire, while James Driscoll - perhaps best known to local audiences for his work with Quad City Music Guild - is a welcome addition to this cast, with his careful enunciation and air of class as Orgon's brother-in-law Cleante. And Angela Rathman makes quite an impression with not one but three roles in the show, the most memorable being her Monsieur Loyal, the bailiff who arrives to remove Orgon and his family from (what becomes) Tartuffe's house. With dramatically emphasized, accented vocals, her Loyal is brightly amusing - even though Molière himself doesn't appear to have made him so.
It is the always-impressive Jessica Sheridan, though, who has the good fortune to tackle, in my opinion, the play's most enjoyable role. As the housemaid Dorine, Sheridan gets to utter the work's most coarse, shocking, and laugh-worthy lines, which she does through adept navigation of Molière's rhymes. Acting as though Dorine speaks in rhyme all the time, Sheridan doesn't allow the style to prevent her from natural inflections, and delivers her dialogue almost as if it were prose and not couplets.
The show's locale within Rock Island's Skellington Manor is also a smart choice, as the room being used already has the look and feel of a wealthy family's living room. Yet while it's a perfect fit for the piece, it's also one of my few complaints about the production; the space creates a welcome intimacy, but also limits the number of audience members to about 40. That's unfortunate, because the Prenzie Players' Tartuffe should be seen by as many theatre fans as possible. Along with 2008's Life's a Dream and 2010's Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Tartuffe is now one of my all-time favorite Prenzie efforts.
For tickets and information, call (309)278-8426 or visit PrenziePlayers.com.