MODESTO — You never have to wait too long before some scandal involving a church and betrayed trust hits the news. There are countless stories of people putting their faith in a minister who turns out to have lower moral standards than the sinners he counsels.
This is why Molière's comedy "Tartuffe" still hits a nerve even though it was first produced 348 years ago. The French comedy is wincingly accurate in its depiction of how devious people can get away with outrageous crimes by hiding under the shield of God. Sad to say, it likely will be just as timely 348 years from now.
Prospect Theater Project's production at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto features a polished cast, a stylish setting in 1950s New Orleans and hip musical interludes of recorded jazz and swing music.
As seen at Thursday night's dress rehearsal, director Jack Souza's production is an engaging, witty piece of theater, if not as powerful as Prospect's previous sellout presentations at Gallo of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." You can't beat the low ticket prices of $8-$15.
The story centers on Orgon, a wealthy businessman who comes under the influence of Tartuffe, a con man who poses as a priest. He has moved Tartuffe into his house and seeks his advice on every matter, despite the objections of his wife and children.
Prospect uses Miles Malleson's easily understandable modern English translation. There are a few rhymed sections of dialogue at the end of each scene, but for the most part, the dialogue is in free verse.
As played by the very likable David Barbaree, Orgon is a sympathetic character who wants so badly to find someone to believe in. Barbaree has a gentle presence and a kind demeanor. Played by another actor, Orgon might seem like an idiot. But you couldn't be mad at Barbaree in this role any more than you could be angry with a teddy bear.
Christopher Volkerts is appropriately slick and slimy as Tartuffe. He slithers around the stage saying pretty words to Orgon, all the while lusting after everything Orgon has.
Megan "Emme" Cardenas nearly steals the show as Dorine, the sexy French maid who is smarter and wiser than nearly everybody else on stage.
She's not afraid of anybody and she'll speak the truth no matter how much it offends. It's too bad her French accent makes her sometimes hard to understand.
Bonnie DeChant is also a highlight as Orgon's lovely wife, Elmire. She is clever and charming and never loses her cool under any circumstance. She shines in scenes where she must battle the advances of Tartuffe.
Colton Dennis is unfailingly reasonable as her brother Cleante, Andrew Brown is hot-headed as Orgon's son Damis, and Souza's daughter Molly Souza is sweetly emotional as Orgon's daughter Mariane.
Karen Olsen enters like a whirlwind as Orgon's pro-Tartuffe mother. She provides some of the funniest moments in the show as she spouts invective at everyone in her family.
As with Cardenas, her accent sometimes makes her hard to understand although in this case it's a Southern accent.
Tori Scoles' portrayal of her dimwitted maid seemed a bit over the top and distracting. Scoles' antics (including following Olsen around and staring at everyone with a vacant expression) took focus away from the main dialogue on stage.
Souza's set is attractive, with Greek columns and a checkerboard floor. The performers wear elegant dresses and suits.
"Tartuffe" offers many laughs and a message that can't be repeated too often. To paraphrase a line in the play, beware people who wear a heavy cloak of virtue. It may be hiding heavy vices.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2313.
Prospect Theater Project's Tartuffe
WHERE: Foster Theater, Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto
WHEN: 8 p.m. July 27 and July 28 and 2 p.m. July 29.
RUNNING TIME: 2-and-a-half hours, including an intermission
INFORMATION: 338-2100 or www.galloarts.org.