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Startling, Inspired 'Tartuffe'

July 19, 1986|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

Nothing is more edifying than to see, in fairly rapid succession, more than one production of the same piece of work.

Watching several artists sculpt a different play from the same mass of raw material (usually called text ) is often a fascinating and true test of its greatness.

Take "Tartuffe." This summer, the Old Globe in San Diego has gone for a broad, Southern Discomfort "Tartuffe" set in Kentucky, a bit overblown but forgivable.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Theatre Center opened its "Tartuffe" in a sumptuous 17th-Century French palais that Moliere might have envied. (Designer Karl Eigsti provided great, sweeping Raphaelesque murals worth the price of admission, edged in gilt and framed by oversize portals).

Ironically, the more traditional trappings deliver the more iconoclastic approach. In fact, the "Tartuffe" at the Theatre Center has something else Moliere would have admired: an actor in the title role who enlarges its possibilities.

As the hypocritical prelate who insinuates himself into the household of the gullible Orgon, Ron Leibman pulls out all the stops. He's willing to appropriate Orgon's daughter, alienate his son, seduce his wife and part the fool from his money. Tall, muscular and sexy, he's also atypical casting. But the uncommon appearance is only one aspect of an intensely personal performance.

Leibman is the kind of actor who thinks on his feet and has a character worked out to the fingertips. Body language is maximized--from sideways glances or a sudden, manic laugh to something as calculated as an index finger picking up three drops of gravy on a table as though tipped with flypaper.

When this Tartuffe is pursuing the unshakable Elmire (played by Leibman's real-life wife, Jessica Walter, with enough common sense for 10), he is consumed with ardor, expelling a hissing cry of anguish at the mere touch of her gown. The accidental contact is pure agony--a moth to a flame. And when Elmire dupes him into believing she might surrender, he unhesitatingly guides her hand to his crotch--just a suggestion, mind you, but as startling as it is raw.

Startling and uncommon gestures are the hallmark of this show. Inspired (and less inspired) touches abound to tell us director Robert W. Goldsby had plenty to do with all the choices in the play.

For instance, Jennifer Tilly plays Mariane, daughter of Orgon, like a breathless Valley Girl lost in the court of Louis XIV. It's a hoot. Danny Scheie, as the son Damis, is a petulant fop in ridiculous furbelows, with the most strident voice since Phyllis Diller. This is not a choice I would have made, but it is a clear choice and not an error.

If nothing else, Goldsby has seen to it that each character is distinct and almost always surprising, down to the bailiff Loyal (Basil Langton) who, in his brief appearance, has his own amusing set of contradictions.

Even Tom Rosqui's Orgon is a more vigorous and delightful fellow than we're accustomed to--not a cartoon, but a vain, happy man, naive and appealing, inured to the nonstop chatter of the maid, Dorine (Madge Sinclair in another unlikely but effective bit of casting), his mother (the excellent Rhoda Gemignani) or his wife and kids. In a household such as this, you learn not to let yourself be browbeaten.

Yet for all this cleverness, the inventive blocking, the funny business and the collection of uncommon portrayals, Leibman's Tartuffe still towers over the lot--buoyed and sustained by the supporting mechanism, but a devilish figure crafted well above it.

Robert MacDougall's triumphant music rounds out the production's sense of fun, and Nicole Morin's costumes carefully match the eccentricities of their wearers, never more tellingly than in the whimsical appearance of the sun king in makeup and garment of gold, perched on unstable cothurni that manage to make him more subject to human mishap than larger than life. (The actor, Fredric Lehne, deserves an A for stilt-walking.)

This is obviously not a particularly dark interpretation of the play so much as a waspish, wily, snappy one in which everyone is having fun--especially the audience.

'TARTUFFE'

Moliere's comedy presented by the Los Angeles Theatre Center on the "Manny" Rice Stage. Producer Diane White. Translator Richard Wilbur. Director Robert W. Goldsby. Set Karl Eigsti. Lighting Toshiro Ogawa. Costume, hair and makeup Nicole Morin. Composer Robert MacDougall. Stage manager Patrick Watkins. Cast Rhoda Gemignani, Bonita Friedericy, Jessica Walter, Madge Sinclair, Danny Scheie, Jennifer Tilly, Len Birman, Tom Rosqui, Jeffrey Alan Chandler, Ron Leibman, Basil Langton, Fredric Lehne, Bill Kohne, Matthew Shields. Performances at 514 S. Spring St. run Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m., until Aug. 9. Tickets $10-$22; (213) 627-5599.

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