Sometimes, you just have to put your foot down - and 342 years ago when Molière's spirited comedy Tartuffe finally opened after five years of threats from the Roman Catholic Church and the royal court, it was the women who took charge.
First comes the maid in the French household where the master, a numbskull named Orgon, has allowed a rotten, pious fraud named Tartuffe to take over by worshipping the man's every utterance.
In the crisp, fluid rendering of Tartuffe by Temple University's professional Repertory Theater, the maid is a strikingly insolent Genevieve Perrier, who spouts orders and insults in a charming French accent, all the while taking no prisoners. She tells Orgon, whose household is collapsing under the weight of Tartuffe's holier-than-thou heft, that the two of them are idiots.
Then, in the play's second half, Orgon's wife, Elmire, becomes the enforcer, setting a sex trap to sting Tartuffe and reveal his hypocrisy to Orgon. Kate Czajkowski pulls off the character, and the sting, with the mettle of a woman forever satisfied in the knowledge that she's right.
The two actresses nail their parts, but the real hero, the one who dug in his heels, is the playwright. An early version of Tartuffe, called The Imposter, debuted in 1664. When a good many members of the clergy and upper classes saw substantial pieces of their supposedly heavenly selves in the antagonist, they proceeded to raise holy hell. The play was banned.
Molière fleshed it out in a second version and then, in 1669, in the one we have today. All the while, he stood his ground; the final version was performed and was a success - and Molière was a genuine freedom fighter for theatrical expression.
Given all that, it's a pleasure to see him honored by a production so meticulous, kinetic - and aptly modern. I'd expected a Tartuffe directed by the highly physical actor Emmanuelle Delpech to have people sprawled on the floor or running in unison to one side of the stage to show surprise, or generally siphoning the best parts of their characters by underscoring their extremes.
What I didn't expect was the bright, lucid, mod translation by British playwright Ranjit Bolt, which he wrote about a decade ago, and which gives the play an urgency and keeps it in rhyme, as Molière wrote it in French. Tartuffe is a "creep" or "a piece of work" who "gives us all such grief." The rhymes hang the street talk together with wit - among Molière's trademarks.
The 13-member cast is up to the task and includes David Ingram as the clueless Orgon, Rob Kahn as Tartuffe, and young lovers played by Stefanee' Martin and Robert Carlton 3d. James Sugg's sound design helps swing the mood, and whiteface greasepaint on everyone emphasizes the clownish situation. Tartuffe himself is a master deceiver, but there's no fraud here, just a fresh angle on a real Molière.
Presented by Temple University Repertory Theater, Randall Theatre in Annenberg Hall, 13th and Norris Streets, through July 29. Tickets: $25. 215-204-1334, 1-800-838-3006, or www.temple.edu/theater/TRT. Tartuffe runs in repertory with Buried Child.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or firstname.lastname@example.org.