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Pious Hilarity 

Rousing Tartuffe punctures a purveyor of spiritual humbug.

With all the vein-popping arguments about whether a southern judge should plop a two-ton boulder bearing the inscription of the Ten Commandments at his courthouse and whether kids should dutifully recite "One nation under God" in their morning pledge of allegiance, it's good to remember that religion and hypocrisy often are inextricably entwined. Can anyone count the number of famous people who, while they eagerly describe themselves as church-going, have demonstrated an inability to make their real lives particularly devout? Can you say Bubba, Newt, and Rush? One wonders what the genius playwright Molière would have made of such scoundrels, had he managed not to have his head explode from the über-hypocrisy currently afoot.

Fortunately, Molière hit upon this topic three centuries ago in his classic Tartuffe, which is being given a rollicking rendition by the Great Lakes Theater Festival. In it, the affable and wealthy Orgon is held in a trance and taken huge advantage of by his houseguest, the seemingly righteous but conniving Tartuffe. Part of the fun is that Tartuffe's mask is ripped off long before he even arrives onstage, as lady's maid Dorine (a feisty Laura Perrotta) regales the household with tales of the man's true and lowly nature. Eventually, she and Orgon's wife (Carie Yonekawa) devise a plan to show Orgon just what a scuzzball Tartuffe is, but that's just the beginning of the twists and turns in this frothy romp.

Usually, this play relies on great performances of Orgon and Tartuffe to float all the frivolity. And Andrew May as Orgon is a thorough delight, as he morphs from Tartuffe's enthralled dittohead to his scandalized foe. Constantly one-upped by his relatives and staff, May's creation is a comical party favor, bursting with momentary impulses and wayward intuitions. But May and director Drew Barr never allow Orgon to descend into pure burlesque or slapstick. And, to prove how strong the entire ensemble is, the production manages to withstand the capable but dour presence of Steve Tague in the title role. Tartuffe should be a sensualist, who uses the illusion of self-denial to indulge in monumental feasts -- gustatory and otherwise. Instead, Tague looks like a genuine ascetic: anorexically thin, with dark, hooded eyes. Moreover, Tague's interpretation is so raw and morose, it's hard to imagine how he ever ingratiated himself with even so hapless a dupe as Orgon. That said, Tague is a fearsome enemy, once he's revealed to his benefactor, setting up the deus-ex-machina ending, which comes complete with a white knight entering in a silver cloud.

Richard Wilbur's reliable translation of Molière's language, even with the avalanche of rhymed couplets, sounds as fresh and frisky as if it had been written last year. Here's the dense Orgon's reasoning, as he tries to convince his resistant daughter to marry Tartuffe: "The more you loathe and dread him/The more ennobling it will be to wed him!" Great stuff, at least until the play about Rush gets written.

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