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Editorial Review

After Plodding Start, 'Tartuffe' Rollicks
But Cast Still Plays Moliere Too Straight

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sometimes you have to turn the key a few times to get the engine to start, which is what Journeymen Theater Ensemble seems to be doing as it tries to engage the comic horsepower in Moliere's "Tartuffe."

Moliere penned his 17th-century lampoon of religious hypocrites and the dupes who adore them in verse, but director Karl Kippola vamps a bit before getting into that. First comes a new self-referential prologue that puts the usual "Cellphones off, please" warning in 17th-century style (rhyming "don't text" with "vexed"), and then we get a stretch of fussy pantomime in which the religious fraud Tartuffe slips underneath the vast fabric of a singing maid's dress.

When the cast finally settles into Richard Wilbur's 1963 translation, it's as if the comic rhythm of the writing catches them by surprise. The plot is silly and bright: Tartuffe (who, for the record, doesn't usually appear until the third of the play's five acts) has so fooled Orgon, the master of the house, that he is in a position to make a play for Orgon's wife even as he is being promised the man's daughter. But dialogue that's meant to fly shuffles listlessly here, with odd pauses as actors show uncalled-for restraint.

Luckily, the performance eventually gets hotwired by Jjana Valentiner, who brings a lively sense of wit and mischief to her portrayal of Dorine, the smart-mouthed maid. Puckish language trips off Valentiner's tongue as Dorine mocks and prods the family she serves, and suddenly the evening achieves a bit of saucy style.

With that, things begin to loosen up. Valentiner finds a good sparring partner in Tiffany Fillmore's Mariane, the ingnue betrothed to the loathsome Tartuffe, and Valentiner creates laughs as Dorine soothes Scott Zeigler's absurdly hotheaded Damis (Orgon's son). The dust-up between Mariane and her displaced heartthrob, Valere (Jon Reynolds), isn't nearly as sweet as it should be, but Valentiner again delivers with a nice punch line about lovers' tongues that surely wasn't quite what Wilbur envisioned (though Moliere would bless this spin).

As Tartuffe, Jesse Terrill maintains a snappy pace and snarky tone that gives the character the feel of a street hustler. Smugly munching from a bowl of nuts, Terrill's bald two-faced turn all but suggests Bugs Bunny murmuring, "Ain't I a stinker?" It's cute, but not always convincing.

That brash cartoonishness also belies the fact that this is basically a strait-laced production, with a lackluster period design, a spotty sense of style and even a wandering focus: The evening's final tableau centers on two extremely minor characters that Kippola keeps busy during scene changes. It's the kind of oddity that keeps this "Tartuffe" diffuse and toothless.

Tartuffe by Moliere. Directed by Karl Kippola. Set, Tobias Harding; lights, Chris Holland; costumes, Heather Lockard; sound, Chris Baine. With Steve Beall, Lindsay Haynes, Brandon McCoy, Sarah Holt, Michael Harris and Emily Formica. About 2 hours and 20 minutes.