Review: When ‘Tartuffe’ Meets Trump, It’s Revolutionary

The rain that arrived in Brooklyn by the bucketful in the middle of Act II of “Tartuffe” on Saturday would normally have stopped the show.

But now isn’t normal for the young theater company Molière in the Park, whose name and mission promise outdoor performance. Originally planned, pre-pandemic, as an in-person, open-air staging at the LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the production took place online instead, where weather doesn’t matter and no one gets wet.

That might not have mattered if it weren’t so good, but this is an implicitly political “Tartuffe,” full of delight for our undelightful time. Under the swift, clear direction of Lucie Tiberghien, and starring Raúl Esparza as the title con man and Samira Wiley as his mark, it reminds us that hypocrisy is nothing new and that the hope of overcoming it is still alive today.

That was partly the message of the technical workaround, which turned disadvantages of the format — the lack of intimacy, the unreal space, the inevitable glitches — into advantages of access. Many more people could watch, for one thing, and could see the actors more closely than usual even if the actors could not see back.

What’s more, the unceasing felicities of Richard Wilbur’s 1963 verse translation were clearer via earbuds than they typically are to unaided ears; if they weren’t, there were captions available in English and French. (The French Institute Alliance Française is a co-presenter of the event.)

But those are technical matters, not at the core of the production’s strength and timeliness. “Tartuffe” is obviously a strong play to begin with, having kept its place in the world’s dramatic repertoire (with brief pauses for banning) since its first performance in 1664. Molière, taking aim at the problem of weak people laying out welcome mats for evil, used uncommonly sharp darts; they pierce us still.

What abets the story’s resonance now is that Tartuffe, especially in Esparza’s hilariously outré performance, is not really a hypocrite, which implies core beliefs, but a flat-out huckster, with none. Religiosity is merely a disguise he dons to gull Wiley’s Orgon, a rich old man who, with little morality of his own, is especially susceptible to the appearance of morality in others. To watch Esparza finger his rosary as if it were a sex toy and Wiley fall gushingly in love with him, is to see how swindlers and dupes depend on each other’s extremes.

Another reason this “Tartuffe” succeeds in 2020 is that almost all of its principal cast are people of color — and several, like Wiley, a star of “Orange Is the New Black” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” are also playing across gender. It’s a joy to see Kaliswa Brewster (as the daughter Orgon tries to marry to Tartuffe) and Toccarra Cash (as the wife he likewise pushes into his arms) dig into roles that might not be available to them in more traditional productions. Notably, the most prominent role played by a white actor is Dorine, the maid, in a classic soubrette turn by Jennifer Mudge.

But the casting is more than a show of diversity for its own sake, however welcome that is. As the play comes to its crisis, with Orgon realizing too late that he has ruined his family through sheer gullibility, Tiberghien makes a slight but crucial amendment to the story. No longer is Orgon saved by the intervention of Louis XIV, as in the standard text; he is saved by the people themselves, finally using their power to prosecute the fraud in their midst. “With one keen glance, we’ve perceived the whole/Perverseness and corruption of his soul,” Esparza recites, no longer as Tartuffe but as himself.

It would be hard to miss, or discount as irrelevant, the allusion to current cons and crises, in the White House and beyond. In that context a simple line of relief in Wilbur’s translation — “I breathe again, at last” — takes on profound new meaning, especially spoken by this cast.

As each actor uttered it from separate Zoom-like boxes (and from separate time zones, in Los Angeles, New York and Italy) “Tartuffe” delivered a moment of grace I would not have thought it could in our day.

It also delivered on a promise of streamed theater I hadn’t considered before: the promise of approachability. I don’t just mean that more than 5,000 people were able to watch the two shows on Saturday, though this is hugely more than the LeFrak Center’s typical in-person capacity of about 200. (Infinitely more can watch the recording available on YouTube through 2 p.m. on Wednesday.)

I also mean that the many people who have been living and surfing the uprisings on their phones and laptops will feel at home in this “Tartuffe,” with its deliberately pixelated, low-tech vibe and unassuming green screen aesthetic. (The music by Paul Pinto is especially apt.) As the barriers to theater as a genre come down — this show is free — what comes up may be a revolution of its own.

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