Classic con artistry in 'Tartuffe' and 'Music Man,' and plays for the Passover season

Tartuffe (Freddy Douglas) romances Elmire (Carolyn Ratteray.) Photo: Craig Schwartz

Con artistry requires the ability to get the victims to suspend disbelief - the same quality that theatrical artistry usually requires of audiences.

So it isn't surprising that stories of brazen con artists often inspire dramatizations ("American Hustle," anyone?) Sometimes these stories even take place in the world of the actual arts. On Sunday, "60 Minutes" presented a segment called "The Con Artist," about an infamous art forger. It's no stretch to imagine that this criminal's story might easily become a Hollywood movie or a Broadway musical.

But I didn't see "60 Minutes" on Sunday. I was busy watching the bogus band director Harold Hill's gentle swindling of River City in Musical Theatre West's revival of "The Music Man."

Also, earlier in the day, I took in the more savagely funny tale of Tartuffe - a con artist who uses a faux-religious façade to take in his victims - at A Noise Within. Molière's "Tartuffe," which dates back to 1664, is not only a sire of all later satires about conniving hypocrites but also the best of the genre - or at least it seems that way in Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's splendid staging in Pasadena.

Part of the strength of "Tartuffe" is that it's about the title character's deluded mark - the wealthy Orgon (Geoff Elliott, whose mellifluous voice is in risible counterpoint to the goony glasses he's wearing) - even more than it's about the scoundrel Tartuffe himself (Freddy Douglas.)

Orgon has invited the supposedly indigent and ostentatiously devout Tartuffe into his home, perhaps impressed in part by the newcomer's appearance - he looks like Brad Pitt preparing for an upcoming role as Jesus Christ. His rustic rags are in striking contrast to the frippery worn by Orgon's family, which is on display in an elaborate party scene before the dialogue even begins. This wordless scene clearly establishes the general tone of indolence that pervades the household.

Still, everyone except Orgon and his mother (Jane Macfie) is on to Tartuffe - and they are soon roused to join forces against him. The skeptics includes Orgon's wife (Carolyn Ratteray), his brother (Stephen Rockwell), his young-adult children (Alison Elliott, Mark Jacobson), his daughter's intended (Rafael Goldstein) and above all, the chief servant (Deborah Strang.)

The family's anti-Tartuffian strategy sessions yield nothing at first, simply driving Orgon to raise the stakes by threatening to marry off his daughter to the intruder. He doesn't even blink when Tartuffe kisses him on the lips late in act 1. But then act 2 arrives - with one of the funniest revelation scenes ever written.

Rodriguez-Elliott uses the witty rhymed couplets of Richard Wilbur's translation. And she enhances the artifice with a lavish scenic design (Frederica Nascimento) and costumes (Angela Balogh Calin.) Billowing white fabrics create comic confusion as they spoof 17th-century style, and a giant portrait of Tartuffe evokes gravitas when the time is right. Near the end, a king's officer (William Dennis Hunt) who arrives with a handy deus ex machina is converted into an amusing mashup of disco deejay and Ziegfeld Follies emcee.

Molière's play completely lacks the sentimentality that courses through Meredith Willson's portrait of a con artist in "The Music Man." However, in MTW's production of the musical, which closes Sunday at the Carpenter Center on the campus of Cal Stage Long Beach, Davis Gaines maintains a shrewd slickness in his portrayal of Harold Hill, reminding us that he is a traveling salesman, not a boys' band director. Gaines has one arm in a sling as the result of a real-life accident, but the sling actually feeds into the idea that Harold injured himself in a previous encounter with the outraged victims of one of his previous jobs.

Gaines and Gail Bennett, as Marian the Librarian, sound great, and it's fun to see Troubadour Theater's artistic director Matt Walker as Harold's sidekick. Director Jeff Maynard has no brainstorms that add anything to our previous notions of "The Music Man," but I couldn't stop wondering if Walker is even now using his role to develop ideas that he'll incorporate into a later Troubie production. How about a combination of the songs from "The Music Man" and the story of "Death of a Salesman"?

o o o

AS PASSOVER APPROACHES, three Jewish-themed plays are playing in small theaters. Compared to the Christmas fare that dominates LA's stages in December, these productions are less plentiful but more provocative.

SM3M0123.jpgThe play that's the most pointedly and powerfully Passover-related of this group is Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man," produced by West Coast Jewish Theatre at Pico Playhouse. It takes us to the shell of a once-grand house in Richmond in April 1865. The wounded scion Caleb (Shawn Savage) of the (presumably Sephardic) DeLeon family has returned to his family home from service in the defeated Confederate Army, only to find that the rest of his white family has scattered. The house is occupied solely by two of the family's now-freed slaves, Simon (Ricco Ross) and John (Kirk Kelleykahn) - who, after living in this house for years, also consider themselves Jewish.

The three of them have different reasons for continuing to stay in the house, and past wounds emerge into plain view as they hunker down with each other. Still, when Passover arrives, they hold a makeshift seder, with its stories of the previous Jews' escape from slavery. It's a remarkably charged scene. But this family that prays together won't necessarily stay together.

Howard Teichman directed this gripping production, which is scheduled to run through April 13 - the day before seders resume as part of this year's Passover.

Asher-Lev_3NC.jpgMeanwhile, at the Fountain Theatre in east Hollywood, "My Name Is Asher Lev" explores another form of Jewish liberation -- only here the escape isn't from slave masters but from the family-enforced strictures of a Chasidic brand of orthodox Judaism itself. Based on a novel by Chaim Potok, Aaron Posner's script traces the gradual emergence of a free-thinking painter (Jason Karasev) from a culture that discourages free artistic expression.

Stephen Sachs directs a cast of three, with Anna Khaja playing roles ranging from Asher's mother to his nude model to his wealthy gallery owner, and Joel Polis playing Asher's father, the rabbi his father works for, an encouraging uncle and a secular Jewish painter who becomes Asher's mentor.

The play isn't an undiluted screed on behalf of unfettered art; it depicts the pain Asher's parents undergo when they become the unwitting subjects of his masterpiece - and the conflicts this causes within the still-mostly-observant Asher. At times Asher feels like the irreverent child who's mentioned in the seder.

By the way, your eyes are drawn to the actors' faces here, not to any facsimiles of Asher's art - a wise decision. In another play about an artist that's currently running in NoHo, the paintings on display simply can't live up to the extremely lavish words of praise with which they're heralded in the script.

lebensraum-ds.jpgFinally, a few words about Israel Horovitz's "Lebensraum." This fascinating play from the late '90s depicts a what-if scenario, in which a German chancellor actively invites Jews to move to Germany with full benefits of citizenship, as a form of penitence for the Holocaust. Some unemployed Germans are not thrilled by the prospect of millions of new competitors for jobs, but other contemporary Germans are quite welcoming.

As with the previous two Jewish-themed plays above, this one has only three actors, but here they play dozens of characters, covering several individual stories in a remarkably brief running time, with no intermission.

I somehow missed Fountain's production of "Lebensraum" more than a decade ago, so I'm grateful to director Don K. Williams, his skilled cast and the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company for introducing me to this brain-tickling adventure, which holds out hope for the kind of rebirth that's celebrated in the seder. Too bad it's playing only two more weekends at Art of Acting Studio in Hollywood.

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