A NOISE WITHIN'S 'TARTUFFE' EMERGES WITH MOLIERE'S EXTREME COMEDY\INTACT.
Moliere understood the comedy of extremes, endowing his best-known characters with shortcomings - miserliness, misanthropy and so on - that he'd heightened to the point of ridiculousness and hilarity.
Perhaps his best play - and certainly his most controversial - was "Tartuffe," about a shady character who cloaks himself in religion, professing selflessness and piety even as he swindles a fortune from a Parisian family and tries to play hanky-panky with his patron's wife.
It's a stinging indictment of hypocrisy of all kinds - a message that comes through loud and clear in a zany and occasionally racy production by Glendale's A Noise Within classical repertory company.
The company is reprising this popular production from its early days, in 1992. In addition to performing at home, it is sending the show on the road as part of its nascent touring activities.
As restaged by company co-artistic director Art Manke, the 1660s French play (its rhyming couplets wittily translated to English by former poet laureate Richard Wilbur) is a real knee-slapper.
Mitchell Edmonds (the principal holdover from the previous production) poses and preens as the pompous and oh-so-deluded Orgon, who makes Tartuffe his closest confidant, despite his family and servants' insistence that the man is a huckster. Jenna Cole is Orgon's wife, Elmire - a radiantly beautiful woman with a serene disposition.
The two-faced Tartuffe finds her irresistible.
Preston Maybank plays Tartuffe with a slouch in his shoulders (as though they've been rounded by clutching his hands forever in prayer) and a look of doe-eyed earnestness that turns pure mountain lion whenever he's in close proximity to Elmire.
Orgon doesn't notice, of course, and his stubborn belief in Tartuffe results in one of the production's funniest and most startlingly original scenes.
Elmire tries to win a favor from Tartuffe by inflaming his lechery and trapping him in a compromising situation. The plot goes awry when her stepson charges from a hiding place and reports the infraction to his father. Maybank's Tartuffe cowers on his knees, making a great show of praying and sobbing.
Having heard the son's accusations, Orgon charges toward Tartuffe, thundering, "Ah, you deceitful ..." Abruptly changing course, he turns toward his son and adds, "... boy, how dare you try/To stain his purity with so foul a lie?"
Orgon promptly disinherits his son and throws him out of the house. Tartuffe, meanwhile, exaggerates his martyrdom by swooning into Orgon's lap (like Jesus in Mary's lap, suggesting a Pieta) and shortly thereafter slumping with his arms outstretched (like the crucified Christ).
As humorous as the production is, it doesn't always achieve A Noise Within's usual high quality. With the exception of the incandescent Cole, the acting feels clunky and underdeveloped. And a couple of performers have trouble with the verse, galloping through the rhymes rather than letting them flow naturally.
The show: "Tartuffe."
Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale.
When: Scattered performances through Feb. 4.
Running time: Two hours, eight minutes; one intermission.
Tickets: $18 to $22, available by calling (818) 546-1924.
Our rating: Three Stars.