The Western Stage’s Tartuffe is a cartoonish grotesquerie. True to its commedia dell’arte roots, the play is a fart honk, ass grab, leer fest that plays to the back row in over-exaggerated strokes of unseemly human behavior.
Lust is portrayed with moans and twisted nipples, imaginary dong-strokes and a great deal of furniture-humping. More than one female character gets her face stuffed into 17th century crotch, and let me tell you, the French didn’t wash down there back then.
The threat of violence lingers over the story like a rancid musk. The beastly characters threaten, cajole, mock and abuse each other at breakneck speed with an odd, Tourettic rhythm. They act as if their bodies were possessed by devils and their jerky, frantic actions not their own.
Under Richard Kuhlman’s direction, Tartuffe is a ferocious belch and a hard-on; it’s a swollen red face, a stultifying moan and loads of flying spittle. It is ugly and funny and so provincially buffoonish that it almost feels experimental.
When asked to describe Tartuffe in one word, Kuhlman replied, “Hypocrisy. But if I could use two other words, I would use religion and sex—maybe not even in that order.”
Yes, Tartuffe was a ballsy jab at the church written from within the protective folds of the king’s robe, but Molière’s message of religious duplicity takes a backseat to the physical performances of The Western Stage’s production.
The self-flagellant tale of Tartuffe depicts a falsely pious con man’s attempt to take over a man’s household by stealing his finances, slandering him to the king, marrying his daughter, and fornicating with his wife. Yet the macabre performances nearly obscure the narrative. The play is like a deeply sordid Warner Brothers cartoon. Plot is secondary to the maniacal contortions of the actors’ faces and bodies. They circle each other with hunched backs and gnashed teeth. They address the audience directly and produce arbitrary props to complement dialogue.
Kuhlman has directed Tartuffe as Molière may have directed Tartuffe while roving the French countryside in the 1660s. He’s playing to the people with church-baiting, fart jokes and gratuitous pelvic thrusting. Yet there’s a key difference between the two productions. Molière and his ragtag troupe of actors performed outside to a mob of noisy provincials. Their performances had to be very visual, very loud and more obnoxious than their rowdy audience. Transferred to the intimate confines of the studio theater, these performances become hyperbolic and overwhelming. It’s like watching KISS play Viva Monterey.
As Tartuffe, Jeff McGrath is a satyr unleashed. In a truly unsavory and ejaculatory performance, McGrath seethes like a half-mad and wholly evil pervert. His long stringy hair, bald spot and devil’s beard scream low-budget porn while his crotch-centric antics cheapen every member of the audience by association. He does everything to say, “I’m Satan” but stick pointy finger horns on his head while prance-stalking lovely Elmire around the stage.
“It’s clear you want to be Tartuffalated!” he howls with a spray of spit, a Gene Simmons tongue wag and a vigorous hump of an unfortunate, bystander chair.
As Dorine, the nosy, sharp-tongued maid who holds the house of Orgon together, Dawn Flood delivers a weird, enthralling performance. With two limp, horn-like curls dangling off her forehead, she herks and jerks and poses like she has wires attached to her limbs. She scrunches her face from one bizarre expression to another in an odd, mechanically-timed sequence that is really distracting and possibly brilliant.
Jim McLean’s Orgon is big and red and top-heavy in his flouncy Roger Daltrey wig. Despite being cast as the victim in the story, he comes across as sleazy as Tartuffe. He alternately simpers like a pervert and rages like the Judge in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The sexual undertones of his physical and verbal threats are disturbing. There is something fundamentally unhinged about McLean’s performance that makes you grateful you’re not stuck in an elevator with him.
In fact there is an aura of mental illness that surrounds the entire production. It’s sweat-soaked undergarments, halitosis and masturbation. It’s unspeakable violence and satanic persuasion. It’s dysfunction and orchestrated chaos. And it’s a comedy!
Only the atheist, Cleante, played by Peter Eberhardt with customary ease and aplomb, voices anything resembling rational thought. His measured dialogue and placid blocking act in sharp contrast to the rest of the cast.
Otherwise, Tartuffe is like watching eleven un-medicated sociopaths verbally abuse each other for two hours. Actually, it’s more fun than that. Kuhlman’s direction and his cast’s unbridled performances may be overstimulating, but they’re also unforgettable.