Unsettling timeliness underwrites the tomfoolery of "Tartuffe," now at the Odyssey Theatre. Moliere's deathless satire of religious hypocrisy feels most prescient at present.
Moliere first presented his unfinished "Tartuffe" to Louis XIV's court in 1664. Religious factions cried blasphemy, and "Tartuffe" was banned. This recurred when the completed play premiered in 1667 (under its subtitle, "The Imposter"), with the notoriety fueling European fervor for the forbidden work until 1669, when the ban was finally lifted.
Neither the play's history nor its relevance escapes actor-director Jack Stehlin, whose modern-dress Circus Theatricals co-production blends coy classicism with raw internal rhythms and sitcom word pointing.
Diane Marie Taylor's parquet-floored set supports this Rococo Rodeo Drive approach; ditto Melissa McVay's keen costumes and Timothy Kiley's stark lighting.
The actors are deranged. Stehlin's riotous title fraud merges Tibetan lama, Hollywood agent and Berkeley women's coffeehouse manager. Mark Bramhall's pious patsy is superb, as are Gigi Bermingham's acidulous maid and Daphne Zuniga's thighmastering wife.
Other standouts include Strawn Bovee's dowager, Daniel C. Gibbons and Nickella Dee's lovers, Daniel Nathan Spector's counsel and Kent George's deliberately anachronistic deus ex machina.
The principal discrepancies concern tone. The show plays one way when Stehlin's Tartuffe is on, another when he isn't, with a tendency to savage overstatement that clashes with translator Richard Wilbur's whimsical verses.
Yet the cascading farcical energies largely weather these bipolar shifts, and that, along with the thought-provoking aspects, recommends this loopy revival.
-- David C. Nichols
"Tartuffe," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Wednesdays -Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., except June 1 and June 15, 2 p.m. only. Post-show discussions May 28, June 13; Ends July 13. $19.50-$25. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Russians before the revolution
First produced at the Mark Taper Forum in 1981, "Chekhov in Yalta" is set in 1900, during the waning months of Anton Chekhov's tragically short life. If that sounds like a setting for tragedy, it is. And it isn't. Fittingly, playwrights John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow fuse delicate humor with keen pathos in their beautifully constructed drama, which subtly and ingeniously parodies Chekhov's writing style. Bruce Gray's light-handed staging at Theatre 40 ensures that the humor edges out the pathos, just as Chekhov would have wished it to.
Based on actual events, the action is set entirely in the seaside resort of Yalta, where Chekhov (Richard Hoyt Miller), accompanied by his spinster sister, Masha (Amy Tolsky), has retreated for a rest cure. Chekhov's good friends and fellow literary luminaries Ivan Bunin (Jonathan Read) and Maxim Gorky (Ilia Volok) are also in residence.
This play's cast of characters reads like a "Who's Who" of pre-revolutionary Russia. Also in town for a tour of "Uncle Vanya" is Konstantin Stanislavski (Robert MacKenzie), the flamboyant director of the Moscow Art Theater who has made an inadvertent enemy of Chekhov with his humorless productions of the delicate works that Chekhov insists are comedies. A more welcome distraction is the beautiful Olga Knipper (Kathrine Bates), the company's resident star and Chekhov's wife-to-be.
The pivotal plot point concerns the fact that Chekhov may give his newest play, "The Three Sisters," to another theater for production -- a defection that would destroy the financially strapped Art Theater. But around that central crisis, typical Chekhovian dalliances eddy. Stanislavski's neglected wife, Lilina (Cynthia Gravinese), has a fling with her husband's producing partner (David Hunt Stafford), while Masha tries to snare the disinterested Bunin. Meanwhile, Fyokla (a radiantly funny Nanette Hennig), a servant of very little brain, gets bitten by the acting bug.
Always underscoring the proceedings are the distant rumblings of revolution, the keen and elegiac knowledge that these characters are on the cusp of massive change -- and that most of them won't fare well in the new order. The excellent cast makes us feel the tragedy of that inevitable passage, but the pall is cast lightly. In the interim, before their world erupts, we are richly entertained.
-- F. Kathleen Foley
"Chekhov in Yalta," Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends June 1. $18-$20. (310) 364-0535. Running time: 2 hours.
Shakespeare as sitcom writer
You sit in front of the television, clicker in hand, aimlessly flipping through the channels. "Gilligan's Island," "The Three Stooges," pirate epic, variety show, soap opera, mob movie, game show, religious program, PBS arts programming....