by Ed Malin · July 25, 2015
Do you dislike hypocrites? If so, you have something in common with Judy Klass, Friedrich Nietzsche, and, of course, wisecracker playwright Molière. In Ms. Klass’s new verse play After Tartuffe, directed by the fearless Janet Bentley as part of the delicious third annual Fresh Fruit Festival, the micromanagerial skills of a gluttonous religious figure (Tartuffe in 17th Century France, the Reverend Chadwick Pusser in 21st Century Alabama) nearly tear a family apart but thereby hopefully teach them an important lesson.
It’s approximately the present day, which we understand thanks to the spiritually aware soundtrack (from the mind of Andy Evan Cohen), the presence of the internet and discussions of family entertainment like The King and I and novels like The Handmaid’s Tale. Still, in the Alabama home where the action takes place, Grandma (Cynthia Shaw) has definitely got religion. She makes her granddaughter Mary-Anne (Pamela Joy) and maid Doreen (Bonnie Cannon-Brown) wear white and cover their heads modestly. We hear of the plague that happened a few years back, which was blamed on scientists hell-bent on designing their avian flu virus and sharing it with the general populace. After that, strict religious authorities took over. Is it the Jansenism of the France of yesteryear, that harped on the depravity of humanity? No, it’s a particularly invasive Southern Baptist ideology. Oral (Mike Horan), the head of the household, seems to have lost his mind over a disgraced megachurch preacher, Chadwick Pusser (Don Carter). Pusser now lives in their house and spends his time eating the family’s food and burying them with unsolicited piety. Oral’s second wife, Alma (Mary Monahan), is ill but Oral is much more interested in Pusser’s every word, and even plans to marry Mary-Anne to the middle-aged, comb-over Bible-thumper. Vaughn (Ali Andre Ali), who is engaged to Mary-Anne, is enraged that everything the family has may soon belong to the interloper. Similarly asking “where is the love” is Oral’s son, Daniel (Sean Griffin), who is gay and naturally afraid to risk being himself in the unwelcoming world of the play. Daniel’s lover, Tyler (Bruce Jones) is less concerned that the whole house has hidden cameras. Tyler will always support Daniel, and indeed he does when the holy writ hits the fan.
Pusser is poised to marry Mary-Anne and reap the profits of Oral’s soy processing business. Doreen, the endearing mouth of reason, has never pussy-footed around Pusser. But then the rampaging preacher makes a pass at Alma, and even when Daniel confronts his father with the presbyter’s perfidy, not to mention the story of how Pusser proposed man love with him, Pusser is trusted and the rest of the family is ignored. Only after Daniel is disinherited and has nothing else to lose do he and his kin persuade Oral of the truth. But have things gone too far? By the way, thanks to a still-uncensored internet, Daniel and Tyler discover the history of the original play Tartuffe and how the writer battled the powerful religious bigots of the day.
The rhyming couplets in After Tartuffe keep things merrily rolling along. You may not be so merry, however, when you think how close the U.S. is getting to becoming an isolated, boorish circus like the one posited by this production. Casual references to the border fence with Mexico--itself a prime example of a first world country--combined with Pusser's paen to the Bosnian genocide, followed by the usual persecution of gay peoples make this a heavyweight dark comedy. Throughout, Janet Bentley triumphantly directs every character (including Reverend Pusser's degenerate hairstyle) to follow their truth. For Pusser, it's the way of pushing down everyone (especially the poor). For Mary-Anne, it's love of her father no matter what he does. For Tyler, it's finding a way to truly live life with Daniel on their own terms. The Fresh Fruit Festival provides a great forum for discussing the newly-won rights of of the gay community. Just imagine it was Molière's time, though, and the play was about Huguenots, and you can see that equality is always under attack. This is just another reason we need plays like this.