Theater » Theater Feature

Preacher Man

Tartuffe gets what he deserves at Hattiloo.



f you're looking for some hot after-church entertainment, I know where you can you catch a pretty good Sunday-afternoon strip show. The Hattiloo Theatre's devilishly up-to-date production of Moliere's Tartuffe climaxes with some good Christian bump-and-grind set to the tune of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." It's a very funny coming-of-age moment for an ambitious playhouse that's shown a real commitment to producing classical theater.

Hattiloo has had some success with a Motown-inspired production of Macbeth and an original piece called Shakespeare's Women. But Tartuffe, while still a bit rough at the corners, isn't just a great interpretation of a classic. The script, smartly adapted with Memphis in mind, feels less like a 17th-century French farce than a lost Douglas Turner Ward comedy. It's community theater in the best sense of the word, and on Sunday afternoon, a bona fide miracle happened: A 400-year-old play had a tiny matinee audience laughing out loud.

Matinees are hard, and small audiences are usually too self-conscious to let themselves go. Playing to a house that's outnumbered by the cast can be so brutal for everybody involved that I'm certain it must be addressed somewhere by the Geneva Conventions. But even in this small crowd, watching Tartuffe's surprise strip tease was like going to comedy church, and the sacrament was generously passed all around. Even the scenes that don't involve underwear are sinfully funny and shockingly modern.

Tartuffe is a cautionary tale about religious hypocrisy and how easily a person's best intentions may be manipulated. It tells the timeless story of a charismatic con man who poses as a Christian minister, attaches himself to a pious, politically connected man, then seeks to rob him — hilariously — of his money, daughter, wife, and home.

Director Leslie Reddick accurately describes her Tartuffe as "Memphis 2010," but her slapstick-seasoned production also reflects the centuries-old tradition of broad commedia-style clowning. Her thoughtful adaptation of the script is faithful and light as a feather. Proper nouns and remote idioms have been updated with an ear for comedy and currency. "If the spirit moves you, let me groove you" may not be a successfully executed couplet, but it's very Moliere and sounds completely natural coming out of Tartuffe's mouth as he puts his moves on Elmire, the lady of the house.

Memphis is a church town. Ministers wield great personal and political power, and what's especially fun about this show is seeing how very well Tartuffe translates to contemporary African-American life. It's not been that long since Reddick directed George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum for Hattiloo, and some of that show's influence shows up here. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, when Madame Pernelle, a painfully proper matriarch, ensconces herself in the center of the room to dispense bad advice, the show transforms into a stone-faced parody of Tyler Perry, or what Wolfe might call a "Last Black Mama on the Couch" play.

Jonathan Underwood has become a serious competitor for the title of hardest-working character actor in Memphis, having turned in exceptional performances in La Cage aux Folles at Theatre Memphis and Superior Donuts at Circuit Playhouse. His Tartuffe is a smooth talker with ambitions big enough to justify the shiny silver robe he wears in the play's closing scenes.

Underwood's fearless, funny performance sets the pace for a mix of seasoned performers and promising newcomers that includes Cameron Yates, Robert Oselen Jr., Jai Kandi, and A.J. Bernard.

Reddick hopes her Tartuffe strikes a chord with Memphis' churchgoing community. One local deacon who saw the show on opening night spent intermission texting friends, encouraging them to buy tickets, Reddick says.

Through November 14th

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