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Marc Kudisch imbues the title character of Moliere's play with a whopping quantity of theatrical delight.

Marc Kudisch and Jeanine Serralles
in Tartuffe
(© T Charles Erickson)
Certain actors are born to play certain roles, and Marc Kudisch as the title character in the constantly engaging, if occasionally compromised, production of Moliere's Tartuffe, at the Westport Country Playhouse, is unquestionably one of them.

With a face and physique resembling something that might have been drawn by a Marvel Comics illustrator and with his ingrained self-deprecatory attitude, the enormously talented performer has to be one of the most well-cast players who's ever taken on the religious charlatan and imbued him with a whopping quantity of theatrical delight.

Constantly kissing the cross he wears around his neck and casting his eyes heavenward, Kudisch is never funnier than in the set-piece where, to prove her contention that Tartuffe isn't what he claims to be, Elmire (Nadia Bowers), wife to the bamboozled Orgon (Mark Nelson), entices Tartuffe into seducing her on a table under which her husband is listening in. For sure, the scene wouldn't be as hilarious if Bowers did not match Kudisch rhymed couplet for rhymed couplet in comic aplomb.

Although the offbeat menage-a-trois sequence is the highlight of director David Kennedy's modern-dress version, another light coming close to that dizzying height is the exchange between the besotted-with-Tartuffe Orgon and son Damis (Justin Adam), when the enraged young man thinks he's exposed the phony cleric but is outdone by the latter conniver's clever insistence on his own egregious sins.

The success of any Tartuffe employing Richard Wilbur's translation is due to the poet's inimitable skill at turning Moliere's 12-syllable lines (alexandrines, as English majors know them) into the more Shakespearean 10-syllable lines (iambic pentameters, as those same English major are aware). Nowhere else can be found as imaginative, yet Moliere-esque phrases as the one where Tartuffe-naysayer Dorine (Jeanine Serralles) declares to Tartuffe-yaysayer Mariane (Charise Castro Smith), "You deserve to be Tartuffified."

There is a problem with those rhymed couplets, however, that director Kennedy doesn't thoroughly solve. Something about rhymed verse seems to get actors thinking they must play in a more pronounced manner than they do when delivering plain prose. Incidentally, this is another area where Kudisch is exempt from criticism. Less so are Serralles' Dorine, Adams' Damis and Patricia Conolly's Madame Pernelle, though each is otherwise commendable.

The creative team turns in strong work, chief among them set designer Wilson Chin, who's fashioned a Paris drawing-room dominated by an upside-down Paris cityscape mural (an obvious joke, but what-the-hey!), and costume designer Ilona Somogyi's stylish wardrobe.

A theater truism is that an explosive ending raises whatever precedes it, good or bad. Kennedy and associates present a hoot of one, which, incidentally, suggests that Moliere -- always counting on Louis XIV's benevolent patronage -- wasn't completely devoid of Tartuffe-like hypocrisy.

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