Laguna Playhouse Production of ‘Tartuffe’ Keeps Comedy Rolling

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Shanté Deloach, Katie Karel and Jared Van Heel star in “TARTUFFE,” directed by Richard Baird and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.

By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy

Great comedy is immortal, like “Tartuffe,” Molière’s masterpiece. Even more than 350 years since it was first staged, it still tickles the funny bone. It makes us laugh, but also provokes thought about issues like religious faith, materialism, and the many guises of hypocrisy.

We relate to “Tartuffe.” It’s accessible – maybe because Molière understood human nature. So we’re laughing at human folly, at the kinds of peccadilloes and failings as commonplace in the 17th century as they are today.

Laguna Playhouse’s production, directed by Richard Baird, taps Richard Wilbur’s 1963 English verse translation, a stellar version which preserves the original’s use of Alexandrine verse in rhyming couplets. Wilbur translated 10 Molière plays in all, and his facility with the playwright’s style and language is evident in the fluidity of Laguna’s staging.

Career con artist Tartuffe (Bruce Turk) has hoodwinked wealthy yet gullible Orgon (Bo Foxworth) into believing he’s a humble, virtuous servant of the church.

With the backing of his mother, Madame Pernelle (the magnificently imperious Rosina Reynolds), Orgon takes Tartuffe in as a permanent houseguest. Not only that: He has promised that daughter Mariane (Shanté DeLoach) will break off her engagement and instead marry Tartuffe.

Worse still, Orgon deeds all his wealth and possessions, including the family home, to Tartuffe – a move that will later come back to bite him.

Orgon’s hotheaded son Damis (Rogelio Douglas III) wants nothing better than to run Tartuffe through with his sword. For all his concerns for the family and alarm over the villain’s disruption of the family, he’s taken to task by Orgon, then disinherited.

Rogelio Douglas III, Christopher M. Williams, Bo Foxworth, Bruce Turk and Kate Rose Reynolds star in “TARTUFFE,” directed by Richard Baird and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.

Baird’s cast captures the outward decorum of Molieré’s characters. What’s more, they master and expertly deliver their dialogue, a tricky proposition at best.

Turk is slyly, hilariously over-the-top, and in delivering this brazen, unctuous rogue’s lofty pronouncements, the actor’s ringing oratorical style might remind you of Victor Buono in some of his hammier roles, with touches of the bombast and hypocrisy of many a W.C. Fields screen persona.

Thanks to Foxworth’s portrayal, it isn’t hard for us to see Orgon is more than naïvely trusting – he’s outright gullible, his Orgon a cheerfully petulant oaf who has gone overboard in his ferocious devotion to Tartuffe.

Foxworth adds yet another layer, his Orgon so strong-willed and determined to have his way as to be an unyielding martinet – and once he sees the light, Orgon roils with volcanic anger, his stubborn pride preventing him from admitting to having been duped.

Melanie Lora is absolutely delightful, her Elmire a winning combination of elegance and intelligence, projecting femininity while her sharp mind devises ways to manipulate the sticky scenario facing the family. She aims to expose Tartuffe’s true colors to husband Orgon with a minimum of embarrassment to him.

Katie Karel, Jared Van Heel and Shanté Deloach star in “TARTUFFE,” directed by Richard Baird and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.

Orgon, as we see, is merely the nominal head of the family. It’s actually a matriarchy under the commanding, outspoken Madame Pernelle. Reynolds wonderfully delivers the self-righteous piety of this grand dame, who’s even less inclined than Orgon to believe the depths of Tartuffe’s skullduggery.

The role of the sarcastic family servant is a grand tradition, and Katie Karel’s sharp-tongued Dorine is unafraid to mix it up with her rich employers, seeing right through Tartuffe, yet unable to open anyone’s eyes. What’s more, Karel dexterously uses her inflections to wring laughs from her cutting lines.

Christopher M. Williams has the rather thankless role of Elmire’s brother Cleante. Williams deftly portrays the sensible moderate who offers wise, if unheeded, counsel – one of the few to identify the family’s situation and dispense sound advice accordingly.

Jared Van Heel imbues Valere, Mariane’s betrothed, with a comically foppish, mannered demeanor that’s at first surprising but quickly proves an inspired choice. (Van Heel also arrives late in the play in the secondary role of Tartuffe’s loyal stooge, aptly named Loyal.)

In Mariane’s fervently earnest entreaties to Orgon to allow her to marry true love Valere, and not force marriage to Tartuffe, DeLoach tugs at our heartstrings in perhaps the story’s most thankless, pro forma role.

Baird’s direction and cast’s acting style are all of a piece. Here’s a “Tartuffe” that’s comically melodramatic, a purposeful choice that drives home the script and story’s humor. The use of couplets creates a singsong rhythm to Molieré’s dialogue, and his skillful writing can be justly compared with poetry.

We’re given the pleasure of Tartuffe’s (finally) getting his comeuppance in the eleventh-hour arrival of one of King Louis XIV’s officers (Kate Rose Reynolds) in a brilliantly comedic version of that ever-reliable theatrical trope, the deus ex machina.

Marty Burnett’s period set, Elisa Benzoni’s costumes and Peter Herman’s hair and wig designs, all fixed firmly in Molieré’s time, and Matt Novotny’s lighting, make this a gorgeous-looking, brightly lit confection. Ian Scott’s sound work, which includes original music, adds the finishing touches.

Laguna’s production is rife with many delicious moments, and while the script contains a handful of lengthy speeches, Baird and company keep things moving, holding our interest for the duration.

This isn’t a knee-slapping, laugh-a-minute comedy – more like a light drama punctuated with comical dialogue and populated by characters whose personalities prompt us to laugh.

Your laughter arises from the developments of each scene and the interactions of the characters. You’ll laugh because you recognize the foibles of those characters – attired in such finery, polished and well-spoken, and given to the most blatant examples of human folly.

Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through May 5. Running time (including intermission): Two hours, 25 minutes. Tickets: $45 to $84. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787,



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