The enticing opening tableau is a visual spectacle. Clad in period dress, the frozen ensemble of ten is dimly bathed in light to the blaring sound of baroque music. The rest of the production lives up to this booming start, with the imagery of the second act’s opening and of the finale being equally as impressive.
Complementing his gorgeous stage pictures, director Craig Smith’s vibrant staging has the actors in constant motion on the small playing area. The cast precisely paces, dashes and undulates, achieving a propelling pace and focus. Chanting monks roaming through the audience is an eerie highlight. Slapstick, high comedy, bawdiness and dramatic truth are all vividly rendered by Mr. Smith’s superior sense of stagecraft.
This extends to the not credited, fabulous simple scenic design of an all-white room. There’s a white rectangular counter top with two white wicker baskets holding colorful pieces of fruit, one white stool and a white bench. The white walls of the stage are used for large projections of sketched 17th century details. There is so much grandeur in this artful minimalism.
Playwright David Ball’s 1998 fizzy adaptation is faithful, taut and filled with marvelous rhyming couplets. Beneath the mirth, there are the enduring depth and timeless themes explored by this play that was first performed in 1664. Why do people blindly accept religious edicts without questioning who is issuing them?
Inspired by his piety, the middle-aged gentleman Orgon has taken into his household the charismatic religious fanatic and former vagrant Tartuffe. Orgon’s mother is equally smitten with this conniving tramp but his wife, children and maid have grown skeptical of Tartuffe’s veracity and wary of his motives. After Orgon rescinds the betrothal of his daughter to her beloved suitor and pledges her hand in marriage to Tartuffe, everyone springs into action.
For the play’s first 50 minutes we hear all about Tartuffe and anticipate his appearance. Josh Tyson’s performance in the title role fulfills that expectation. With his gaunt features, crew cut, piercing eyes and expressive tenor voice, the wiry Mr. Tyson offers a riveting portrait of seductive evil. That picture is completed when he strips off his robe, revealing a sinewy torso dotted with creepy tattoos.
Initially blustery, John Lenartz as Orgon emotionally builds to a shattering crescendo as he realizes the folly of his adoration of a false prophet. Mr. Lenartz’s accomplished comedic skills make the eventual pathos even more powerful.
Batting her large, false eyelashes, fanning herself with a vintage black fan and subtly heaving her ample cleavage around, while encased in a lavish, noblewoman’s gown, the raven-haired Elise Stone is effortlessly hilarious as Orgon’s indomitable wife Elmire. With her dry delivery and intense presence, Ms. Stone’s characterization is perfection.
Nearly stealing the show is Morgan Rosse as the caustic, feather duster wielding housemaid Dorine who looms over the machinations. The bookishly, girlish Ms. Rosse is an awesome classical actress and one can easily imagine her playing any of the great female roles of dramatic literature.
Recalling the hauteur of such renowned theatrical and cinematic grande dames as Gladys Cooper, Edith Evans and May Whitty is the majestic Eileen Glenn as Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother. Ms. Glenn is so commanding during what is virtually a monologue that dominates the opening scene that one believes this play will be about her.
Reveling in foppish glory, Oscar Klausner seizes every moment of the finale as the elaborately made up bailiff, Monsieur Loyal. Previously Mr. Klausner appeared to great effect as Tartuffe’s silent servant Laurent.
The youthful Matt Baguth is captivating as Damis, Orgon’s fiery son. Mr. Baguth’s chiseled facial features, soulful contemporary vocal cadences and expressive physicality enrich the role immensely.
As Mariane, Orgon’s flighty daughter, and Valère, her stalwart intended, Alicia Marie Beatty and Wesli Spencer, respectively, are charming. Ariel Estrada forcefully portrays Cléante, Elmire’s helpful brother.
Tsubasa Kamei’s electrifying lighting design enhances the production with its crisp variances. The aesthetically bold projection and video design by Attilio Rigotti illustratively depicts the era and locales.
The rousing original music by Ellen Mandel is heavy on the harpsichord and is the perfect accompaniment to the actions and is proficiently realized by her modulated sound design.
A sensational selection of acquired garments of velvet, brocade and lace characterize Debbi Hobson’s appropriately opulent costume design. Ms. Hobson also provides gleaming white underclothes for the cast during a pivotal sequence.
Comprised of a resident company of actors, the scrappy Phoenix Theatre Ensemble nobly keeps the spirit alive of a New York City troupe devoted to the classics with this triumphant incarnation of Tartuffe.
Tartuffe (through November 12, 2017)
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission