July 8, 2009

"Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe" is Low Stuff

Over the past 10 years, the Classical Theatre of Harlem has drawn raves for its productions of traditional classics like Medea, Macbeth and The Cherry Orchard, as well as for those from the African-American classical canon like Dream on Monkey Mountain and Ain't Supposed To Die A Natural Death. I didn’t see any of those shows. But, alas, I have now seen the company’s latest, Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe, a musical adaptation of the Moliere classic written by Alfred Preisser, the company’s co-founder, and Randy Weiner.

The company often transposes the old classics to contemporary black settings. The only other CTH production I saw was The Trojan Women set in a war-ravaged African nation. But this time—in the company’s debut outside Harlem—things have been taken too far. All that’s left from Moliere are the names of his characters and the rough outline of the plot about a well-off man who is bamboozled out of his money by a sanctimonious hypocrite.

In this telling of the tale, Tartuffe is a Daddy Grace or Reverend Ike-style evangelist, who sings and dances with the fervor of James Brown and surrounds himself with nubile and scantily dressed young women ala Hugh Heffner. He is played by André De Shields, who since his Tony-nominated turn for singing “Big Black Man” in The Full Monty, seems to have demanded that near-nude scenes be written into all the parts he plays.

It’s recently been announced that De Shields will play the blind Teiresias in the Shakespeare in the Park production of The Bacchae after this show closes on July 19 and I don't even want to think about what he'll wear and bear then. De Shields is in great shape for a guy who admits to being 63 and he throws himself—body, soul, and over-working sweat glands—into the role of the deceitful Tartuffe, but I think we would have gotten the point of the character's unbridled licentiousness without his stripping down to bikini briefs.

The music is played by an energetic three-man band. But the songs are a poor pastiche of gospel, R&B and American songbook, plus a little Edith Piaf thrown in for God knows what reason. The dialog is slapdash and often vulgar. “It smells like a flower farted in here,” goes one line. And just when I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

The production overindulges in what may be the only thing I hate about the theater: coerced audience participation. Everyone is commanded to clap and to join in call-and-response chants. Some people are dragged onstage. Other audience members are subjected to lap dances. (I’m not kidding.) And there are several church collection sequences, where they literally pass the basket for money from people who, of course, have already paid for their tickets.

Reactions have varied. The professional critics seem to have enjoyed the show (click here to see Variety's rave). Some audience members, like the woman sitting in front of me, got into the spirit of the thing and started talking back to the actors, unbidden. But others sat with stricken looks on their faces, their mouths literally hanging open in shocked dismay.

I should have known we were in for trouble when my sister Joanne and I walked into the Clurman Theater on 42nd Street’s Theatre Row and were greeted by young women in neon-colored church choir robes, saying “Welcome to the Church of the Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe.” Joanne turned to me with a puzzled look on her face. “Isn’t that the guy from ‘Love Boat’ with them?” she asked, gesturing towards the man who accompanied them and who indeed was Ted Lange, who once played the amiable bartender on the ‘70s TV series and is now cast as Tartuffe's dupe, Orgon. “How did his career come to this?’ Joanne said, shaking her head. That’s what I want to know about the career of the Classical Theatre of Harlem.

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