Ted Lange and Andre De Shields
in Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe
(© Ruth Sovronsky)
Ted Lange and Andre De Shields
in Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe
(© Ruth Sovronsky)
Church services have rarely seemed so much like razzle-dazzle show biz as in The Classical Theatre of Harlem's Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe, a 90-minute play with music inspired in part by Moliere's classic, now at the Clurman Theatre. While Andre De Shields is a flamboyant delight as the blinged-out minister of the title, his skills can't fully compensate for the show's wearying thinness, under the direction of Alfred Preisser (who is also credited along with Randy Weiner as playwright.)

As he enters in a crushed red velvet get-up to deliver the first of many roof-raising sermons, De Shields makes the minister a larger-than-life cartoon of bravado, a transparent huckster who it's hard to resist laughing at. Directing almost all his dialogue and songs to the audience as if it was his congregation (a conceit that Greg Mitchell's flashy set supports on all four walls of the house), this man of the cloth is by turns a cheesy seducer, a truth-teller, amd a snake oil salesman. De Shields, often directed (as is the ensemble) to venture out into the audience, delivers his funky songs and crazy-eyed sermons with the relish and know-how of a seasoned grand showman.

Unfortunately, whenever the play shifts focus away from the minister's pulpit things come to a crashing halt. The story, in which fervent church supporter Orgon (Ted Lange) suffers his family's objections that he is throwing away their inheritance on the church, is not given the prominence it would need to register, and its themes of greed and hypocrisy are oversimplified.

The material is given a highly stylized presentation -- for example, all family members talking in unison chorus style -- that prevents more than cursory dramatic engagement. There's also an extended scene in which each of the family members has a short musical monologue --for example, Orgon's wife Elmire (Kim Brockington) offers a catalog of sexual kinks set to the melody of "La Vie En Rose" -- but it doesn't show any of the performers to advantage.

Be aware that the production features an abundance of audience participation moments; there are at least a dozen instances when the performers either bring audience members on stage or walk through the house to engage with theatergoers. The show may be uneven, but at least it's often fun.