The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2018 season officially got off to a raucous start at the Saturday evening, May 19, press opening. Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte leads Molière’s biting satire from 1664, “Tartuffe,” translated by the late Richard Wilbur. The gorgeous production is eye candy, the actors deftly declaim their lines in rhymed hexameter as if it’s their natural way of speaking, and dramatic timing is so precise—so difficult to achieve in comedy—that “Tartuffe” is an uproarious romp. The sold-out crowd gave the 11 actors a well-deserved standing ovation.

The look of 'Tartuffe'

Scenic Designer Brittany Vasta has exploited every available inch of the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre stage, constructing a spacious two-story play area, that is a formal sitting room in the home of Orgon and Elmire, a family of considerable means in 17th-century France. Ms. Vasta has lined the stage with opulent Louis XIV brocade satin chairs, a sofa, a bay window banquette, curved inlaid wall moldings, a pastel Fragonard-style ceiling mural and other decorative appointments. Costume Designer Nikki Delhomme has adorned the central family in mouth-watering floor-length satin gowns of pink and baby blue (Elmire sports a graceful sash), the men in velvet trousers and ruffled shirts.

Nearly everyone is abundantly wigged.

Auspicious debuts

No less than six actors make their STNJ debuts in this production. Most auspicious among them are the ladies of Orgon’s family: Caroline Kinsolving, as his wife, Elmire, the sophisticated epitomé of restraint and judiciousness and the dramatic fulcrum of Tartuffe’s downfall, and Sarah Nicole Deaver, as his daughter, Mariane, the deliciously comedic tragedienne, whose graceful clumsiness—both in body and in social skills—and other agreeing contradictions prompt numerous chortles, snorts, and chuckles.

In short, she is this production’s Queen of Physical Comedy. As Orgon’s mother, the indignant and self-righteous Madame Pernelle, Vivian Reed’s skills bring a rare novelty to the stage: a distinct Southern accent declaiming the rhymed hexameter as adroitly as the rest of the “Frenchies.”

What about the gents?

Furthering the Company’s praiseworthy tradition of color-blind casting, William Sturdivant debuts as an eloquently and immaculately spoken Cléante (Orgon’s brother-in-law), while Mark Hawkins is the dashing, sincere suitor in pursuit of Mariane—he for whom the audience is rooting—and Garrett Gray, who appears only in the final moments, is the plot device pivot: A King’s Officer.

All three men present a solid performance, with Mr. Sturdivant a close second place in his natural delivery of the rhymed couplets that pervade the work. Mr. Hawkins, who for some reason appears wigless, makes quite a splash in his Company debut. It will be great to see him in future, possibly leading, roles. As Damis (pronounced Dah-MEE), Orgon’s son, and also as last year’s title character in Molière’s “The Bungler,” Aaron McDaniel shows great promise and in physical comedy is Ms. Deaver’s counterpart.

Title honors

Veteran Brent Harris—in this production a Franz Liszt look-alike—plays the greasy, wily, sanctimonious Tartuffe, wringing from it every ounce of oozing slime. Patrick Toon is the perfect foil as the unsuspecting, wide-eyed Orgon, whom Tartuffe takes for all he’s worth … literally.

In Orgon, Molière masterfully created a clearly drawn character, who, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, ardently defends the title character’s character with outrageous outrage, exasperating everyone onstage (and most of the audience too). Elmire conceals him—to disabuse him of the notion that she is mistaken about Tartuffe’s attempts to seduce her and thus catch the scoundrel in the act—leading to hilarious schtick wherein Orgon fails to react to several cues that it’s time to reveal himself.

Can she do no wrong?

Taking first place with the rhymed couplets that form the fabric of this serious comedy’s text-dense dialogue, Victoria Mack is the quick-witted, fleet-footed Dorine, lady’s handmaid to the youthful Mariane.

Dorine and Elmire deserve credit for bringing about Tartuffe’s well-deserved disgrace. Ms. Mack’s every gesture, every facial expression perfect the thought underlying her countless lines.

Skillful direction

Bonnie J. Monte rightly shows an obvious fondness for Molière, having staged three or four of his major works in the past few years. Her actors get the timing just right, which is a wonder for such a swift-paced work. Also credited for sound design, Ms. Monte has chosen true-to-the-period musical excerpts as introductions and interludes, starting with Ottorino Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances.” Though he composed the three orchestral suites between 1917 and 1932, he faithfully adapted for the modern orchestra various 16th- to 18th-century original pieces for lute.

They create the perfect atmosphere for “Tartuffe.”

Did you know?

A few first-rate facts.

  • This is The Shakespeare Theatre’s 56th season.
  • It is Bonnie J. Monte’s 28th season with the Company.
  • She has directed more than 60 productions there.

Extended till Sunday, June 10, “Tartuffe,” by Molière, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, N.J.