The play relates the final years of the brilliant French comedic playwright Moliere. With Tartuffe, he took on the conniving clergy of the late 18th century, while in Don Juan, he skewered the fatuous and indulgent aristocracy of his time. This pleased the king and Moliere's public greatly, but won him few friends among his humorless targets; they sought -- and achieved -- his ultimate downfall.
The money the production saved on its sparse (but flexible) set is wisely spent on exquisite makeup and costuming (by Amy Mordecai). This neatly creates the feel of the court of Louis XIV. Moliere presides over his own ragged court of actors and stagehands, driven not by power but by his own "unrestrained personality." Thomas Redding gives a superbly bipolar performance, swinging wildly between the extremes of genius and self-destruction, of rapture and terror. But we see very little of Moliere's actual work and caustic wit and, unfortunately, none of his supernatural ability with rhyming verse.
Still, the point of the play is not to celebrate Moliere's brilliance so much as to show the cost and danger of it. We see his bitter despair after losing the king's favor, the loss and betrayal of friends and lovers, and his cowardice in facing the powers he so courageously satirizes onstage. Most of all we see the differences between a person and a personage; the way small flaws or slights become tragic elements when magnified by public adoration, success, and proximity to power.
Allen McKelvey's exaggerated direction impels the actors to histrionic (and occasionally cartoonish) performances. Still, this is not inappropriate, as the company's stated purpose is to "stretch credulity." Good use of the actors' considerable abilities in movement and vocal control helps the cast overcome the limitations of the space, and achieves the transportive experience that theater must be if it is to compete with the effects available to television and film. The gender-blind casting of Kikelemo Adedeji as an indifferent Louis XIV is funny and effective. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb as Marquis D'Orsini and Ian Bedford as Archbishop Charron both have strong stage presence, simultaneously sinister and ridiculous, providing essential dramatic impetus to the play. Despite their stature, they manage to portray the small-mindedness that made them such easy targets for Moliere, as they overcome their mutual hatred -- cleverly expressed in a genuine spit-fight -- to squash the insect who dares to challenge their power.
Bulgakov must have seen his own circumstance in Moliere's plight: At one time the pre-eminent Russian playwright, his work was banned from the Moscow Art Theater by Stalin, who naturally took offense at the implications A Cabal of Hypocrites had for late 1920s Moscow. In America today almost nothing is taboo, despite works that try ever harder to shock and offend. But the power of theater to threaten power is something that ought not be forgotten, lest it be lost entirely. AmeRican CitiZeNs TheatRE does a commendable job of expressing a truth that may go unnoticed by modern audiences.