A play from the 1600s with relevance to today: Moliere’s ‘Tartuffe’

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents Moliere's 'Tartuffe' May 16 – June 3. The French playwright's masterwork centers on a con man's affects on a community. Among the stars: Two-time Tony Award nominee Vivian Reed.

Broadway actor/singer Vivian Reed often chooses projects based on the part she’ll play, both the roles that suit her personality and those that stretch her as an actress. In Moliere’s “Tartuffe” – at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey May 16 – June 3 – Reed plays Madame Pernelle, the judgmental grand dame who is easily manipulated by the title con man. 

“Ooh, I like her. She tells it like it is and doesn’t hold back, which is kinda my personality,” Reed said in an interview with NJ Advance Media. “I love character work.”

“Tartuffe” is the Shakespeare company’s first show of 2018 . Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte said this season — the company’s 56th — is devoted to comedy and comic relief. Also scheduled are Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” and “The Winter’s Tale;” Sam Shepherd‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child;” and Noel Coward‘s “Blithe Spirit.” Monte said some of the comedies this season “are pure delightful froth and others are deeper, more serious comedies; Moliere’s Tartuffe” is a combination of both.”

This is Reed’s first time performing in a play by the French master known for his social commentary disguised as biting comedy. It also marks her Shakespeare N.J. stage debut. The two-time Tony Award nominee — for 1976’s “Bubbling Brown Sugar” and 1992’s “The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club” — is best known for her musical performance work. She said she’s happy to take on a challenge that allows her to rest her voice.

“It’s nice not to have to get up in the morning and say, ‘Uh oh, gotta get some tea’ because you were singing the night before and you have to nurse your vocals all day,” she said. 

Besides, she’s saving those vocal cords for “Vivian Reed Sings Lena Horne” at The Green Room 42 in New York on June 30, the 101st anniversary of Horne’s birth. Reed earned rave reviews when she debuted her tribute to the legendary performer late last year.

“I talk about her activism and her losses, and the men who had an impact on her life, but in general, it’s light,” said Reed, who arranged the songs herself. “It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, it’ll make you think. That’s what I go for.”

When it comes to playing fictional creatures, though, Reed believes “the crazier, the better.” She ran down a quick list of her favorite performances: as Queenie in “Showboat;” as Angel in “Blues for an Alabama Sky;” as Meg in “Damn Yankees.” 

Once, she said, she suggested to a director that she be given a role as a homeless woman. The director’s reply: “Nobody in their right mind would hire you to be a bag lady.”

In response, Reed hired a writer and spent three days filming a 22-minute short featuring herself as a homeless woman. And, she said, she was good. 

“I prefer, at this point, characters that aren’t glamorous. Unless they have layers,” she said. “In a sense, Madame Pernelle is glamorous, but there’s a depth to her.”

“Tartuffe” was first performed in 1664 but Reed said modern audiences will be able to relate to the story. The title character is a fraud who convinces some members of the Pernelle family of his piety and good intentions, much to the distress of others. In the end, he is usurped.

“It’s about a con artist …” Reed said. “But there’s humor added to it and that’s what makes it special.”

Moliere’s “Tartuffe”

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

36 Madison Ave., Madison

Tickets: $29-69, available online at http://shakespearenj.org. May 16-June 3.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at nataliepompilio@yahoo.com. Find her on Twitter @nataliepompilio. Find NJ.com/Entertainment on Facebook.  


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