THERE ARE TWO MAIN PROBLEMS in producing Molière's Tartuffe. The first: how to present a 300-year-old, two-hour long piece of classical theater composed of uninterrupted rhyming couplets without boring a modern audiences to tears. The second: how to effectively allow the comedy to speak for itself, maintaining the integrity of the text--some of the most ingenious and incisive social satire ever penned for the stage--without resorting to slapstick.

Hyperion Productions' solution to the first of these challenges is, at best, dubious and pregnant with the possibility of disaster. They opt to "modernize" this timeless tale of blind faith and religious hypocrisy by dragging it screaming into the 20th century.

The second challenge they choose to ignore completely.

First of all, I have a blanket objection to resetting classic works in present times. There's an old saying in theater: If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage. In "modernizing" classic pieces and setting them in present-day contexts, it is impossible to abide by this sage piece of wisdom. Even with its timeless theme, Tartuffe's context does not and will not mesh with current times. In setting Molière's classic in modern-day Los Angeles, Hyperion forces current cultural affectations upon the plot and characters, cluttering the stage with confusing actions and gratuitously inserted situations that the script simply does not support. The result is a laptop-toting Orgon (the patriarch and dupe of the tale, played by David Crowe) who runs about dressed in army fatigues, stockpiling weapons and provisions, and bit characters who wear party hats with "Happy New Year, 2000!" emblazoned upon them for no apparent reason. Only in reading the director's notes do we discover that Orgon is supposed to be a Hollywood producer, frantically preparing for the coming Y2K crisis--facts found nowhere in the dialogue. And in the play's final moments, when the "king" foils Tartuffe's greedy machinations and rescues Orgon and his fortune, the whole anachronistic mess falls apart. Who is this "king" in modern day Hollywood? Spielberg? Geffen? It just doesn't pan out.

Instead of allowing this masterful work to speak for itself, it seems as if director Joe Seabeck wants to detract from the words with the overblown staging. Unlike most classical theater, Molière does not have to hit you over the head to remain funny or salient to modern audiences. The overly embellished direction--which had characters rolling on the floor, jumping on the furniture, and twisting themselves into contortions generally reserved for yogis, acrobats, and MS patients--not only detracted from the script, but looked ridiculous.

Another great directorial flaw was in ignoring one of the great truths of theater: The essence of comedy lies in playing it straight. The moment Josh Sebers' caricature--I shudder to call it a character--of Tartuffe walked on stage, a flood of overacting was unleashed that left me involuntarily rolling my eyes and moaning. Dressed as a cartoonish televangelist in a bespangled white leisure suit, cowboy boots, and a curly Richard Simmons fright wig, he bellowed in an affected drawl, stomped, screamed, shook, sweated, slobbered, gestured wildly to his penis, rolled on the floor, broke props, upstaged fellow actors, and swallowed some of the best lines with his fits. In my book, that ain't comedy. It's apoplexy.

Equally absurd was the sound work. When the curtain first rose, it was accompanied by Prince's "1999," followed by equally noxious numbers by Britney Spears, and worst of all, closet-case extraordinaire Ricky Martin. And, like Tartuffe himself, the music always succeeded in being louder than the actors and obscuring the lines.

It would be very easy to take the intellectual high road and trash this entire production, but that would be doing some fine actors a great disservice. Shining among the cast was Sara Balcaitis as Dorine. Balcaitis was charming and fun, stealing the show as the outspoken and meddling lady's maid, taking advantage of the script's ample physical comedy without overacting or falling into the slapstick trap. David Crowe was good when he wasn't swept up in the deluge of overacting that Tartuffe wrought; at times Crowe almost equaled Sebers in slobbering and pratfalls. Jolayne Berg and David Lisznia worked surprisingly well as the lovers Valere and Mariane--somehow managing to skirt the dangers inherent in directorial choices that made Valere an oily Mafioso bohunk and Mariana a roller-blading bimbo.

The set is also worth mentioning. It is a wonderful melange of ultra-modern and antique religious art and designer furniture that provided a great distraction from the play's downfalls. When anyone began slobbering, rolling on the ground, or raging, I just ignored them and imagined incorporating the set's design schemes into my own living room.

But in the end, a great set and a few performances that succeed in spite of the direction can hardly compensate for dumbing down and hoking up some of the best comedic writing in history. You just can't upstage Molière, and you shouldn't even try.

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