With sanctimony and obfuscation abroad in the land — and nowhere more so than in those twin citadels, the White House and the Vatican — could any comedy be timelier than the nearly 450 year-old Tartuffe? In one small play, Molière not only satirized the consecrated imposters of his time, but charlatans of all times to come. It's neither difficult nor inapt to think of John Ashcroft when a supplicant remarks in praise of Tartuffe, "He can detect/A moral sin where you'd least expect."
Yet there is more to Tartuffe than its glittering comic surface suggests. Could the wealthy Orgon be so readily seduced into false piety if the impulse to despotism didn't already exist within him? Tartuffe's moral command allows Orgon to indulge his most fervid dictatorial fancies against his own household with an impunity he relishes and, we assume, has secretly pined for. That this same family ultimately saves him is the final joke on his own mercenary disposition.
A brisk, dexterous production of Tartuffe is currently on display from Burning Coal Theatre Company at the Kennedy Theatre of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, in the great Richard Wilbur's peerless translation. While there is much to recommend in the, often, ingenious direction of Emma Griffin, the chief reason to book your ticket is the titular performance of the almost obscenely gifted David Henderson.
The many impressive tricks in Griffin's theatrical bag include the family maid sitting on the banquette, popping grapes as she watches a lovers' quarrel with the avidity of a moviegoer tossing popcorn into her mouth; George Abbottesque door-slamming during the scene breaks; and a court Officer becoming the Prince merely by having a crown plunked unceremoniously on his head from off-stage. If Griffin's staging has a basic flaw, it lies only in her tendency to overdo the physical humor and for some of her actors to do the same with their characterizations.
Most of the cast is splendid. Bob Barr shows remarkable restraint in not camping up the feminine as the play's imperious mater familias. He does so by playing the woman's character, not her sex, and doing so with dignity and righteousness. As that unheeded voice of reason Cleante, George Jack is completely natural with the verse, acting the sense of the lines and not simply the poetry, although that is there as well. Rick Lonon's Orgon is self-satisfaction personified, pompous and cheerily tyrannical. Adam Patterson, despite his youth and relative inexperience, displays exceptional poise and inventiveness as the argumentative suitor Valere. Elizabeth London's Elmire is sheer womanly practicality in the very best sense, combined with unimpeachable je ne sais quois. Her knockabout mock-seduction of Tartuffe is the funniest thing of its kind I've seen since W.C. Fields tried to part Elise Cavanna from one of her teeth.
As the truculent maid Dorine, Liz Beckham saws the air too much with her hands, arms, and elbows; beginning her performance at a fever pitch leaves her nowhere to go. Stephen LaTrent's excitable Damis too is overly emphatic, more vaudevillian than young man of property. Far better is Anne Cole's Mary Ann, a bundle of petulant charm in pigtails and a blue beret.
Which brings me to David Henderson's Tartuffe. It's probably fatal for a critic to fall in love with a performer, but since I consider myself more playwright than reviewer, I can only hope I straddle the artistic fence acceptably. Because this is an actor who grows greater with each new endeavor, renewing our sense that little can be beyond talent like this. He makes his first entrance with a massive belch, and the gesture seems to get at something crucial: behind his airs of sanctimony, Tartuffe is a slovenly braggart whose weakness for flesh embraces the human and the potable with equal fervor.
Henderson, wearing a monk's cowl, sings his lines in praise of Elmire like a supplicant at prayer, uses a banana peel as a makeshift flagellant, and at times makes himself resemble, amazingly, a Hirschfeld caricature. Devouring an entire chicken Henry VIII-style, this Tartuffe is magnificent in his compleat vulgarity. Confronted with Elmire's proffered foot, he unveils it with a flourish, as much magician as lover. Caught in a lie, he flings the cowl over his head, making himself small, a state of innocence possessing his entire body.
Yet Molière's satire is not pure comedy, and not all of Tartuffe himself is comic. As Henderson plays him, this con artist's guilt is not entirely transparent; we see how easily and completely he manipulates Orgon, caressing his face like a lover, whispering endearments and ardent promises. With his impeccable timing and exquisitely expressive hands, Henderson is, like the best practitioners of sorcery, utterly magical.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Tartuffe Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 6-8 and 13-15, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 9 and 16, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theatre in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel). 919/388-0066. http://www.burningcoal.org/tartuffe%20page.htm.