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‘Tartuffe’ is Moliere overkill at Court Theatre

Philip Earl JohnsPatrese D McClastar 'Tartuffe' Court Theatre.

Philip Earl Johnson and Patrese D McClain star in "Tartuffe" at Court Theatre.

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When: Through July 21

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis

Tickets: $15-$65

Info: (773) 753-4472;

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

Updated: July 2, 2013 6:44PM

Remember that long-ago proclamation by Senator Barry Goldwater that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”? So what would you say to extremism in the guise of piety, though that piety is really a devious cover for the pursuit of personal profit?

For the answer to THAT question consult Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” the French satire now on stage at Court Theatre where director Charles Newell has replaced the posh salons of the 17th century French bourgeoisie with the handsomely appointed living room of a power broker and his family who are part of the African American smart set in Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood.

Newell’s take on “Tartuffe,” a play that suggests what can happen when a newly rich and powerful member of society falls prey to a demagogue, arrives immediately on the spikey heels of his reimagined take on “The Misanthrope,” Moliere’s play about an upscale segment of society rife with hypocrisy and gossip. And once again, in an attempt to raise questions about race and class in THIS country, the director has shifted from the predominantly white casts that tend to portray Moliere’s characters to a largely black one. The result is less radical than he might have expected as both productions (using the same cast) seem only to confirm that there are plenty of skilled black actors in town who can play “aristocrats” and deftly volley Richard Wilbur’s supple translations of Moliere’s rhymed couplets.

The foolish aristocrat here is Orgon (A.C. Smith), a black businessman. And along with his prim church lady mother, Madame Pernelle (Allen Gilmore, in another performance that elevates drag to high art), he has fallen prey to Tartuffe (a perfectly unctuous and despicable Philip Earl Johnson). This smarmy white fundamentalist preacher, who Orgon lifted out of poverty, has wormed his way into near total control of the household.

Orgon’s chic wife, Elmire (Patrese D. McClain), is repelled by Tartuffe, though he is hot for her. And she must scheme to unmask the imposter in time to prevent her impulsive husband from marrying off his young daughter, Mariane (Grace Gealey), to this hideous man, rather than to her devoted Abercrombie-like boyfriend, Valere (the engaging Travis Turner).

Elmire gets support from her rational brother, Cleante (deft work by Michael Pogue), and from the wonderfully outspoken, clear-eyed maid, Dorine (Elizabeth Ledo, most winning as the unstoppable voice of reason), while her explosive grunge-chic stepson, Damis (Dominique Worsley), goes full tilt against Tartuffe.

The cast (with zesty turns by Erik Hellman and Desmond Gray) sometimes overworks the material. And Newell, uncharacteristically, fails to opt for the most subtle choices, even pushing the scene in which Tartuffe brutally oppresses both Elmire and Mariane to the point where it feels out of synch with the show’s overall tone. It might just be time to give Monsieur Moliere a good long “vacance” from the stage.

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