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`Tartuffe' spoof; Rachmaninoff at BSO; American Ballet Theatre

`Tartuffe' director Richard Jenkins doesn't so much move the production from the 17th to the 20th century as straddle them. Ancient religious paraphernalia, as well as a life-size cardboard Jesus with a neon halo, crowd the space. He gives the family a stereotypically Midwestern flat diction and naivet'e. Moli`ere's 17th-century farce about religious hypocrisy, ``Tartuffe,'' has been given a splendidly overdone production at the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence.

Tartuffe is a huckster who, through fake religious fervor, ingratiates himself into the home of a gullible middle-class family and tries to seduce the wife. It's often done so that we can understand how the family is fooled; until his unmasking, Tartuffe's patina of piety covers up his wickedness. In Trinity's production, directed by Richard Jenkins, Tartuffe (Peter Gerety) flaunts his lust, and the family looks even sillier for being so duped.

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Jenkins is not knocking innocence, but naivet'e. In this age of mesmerism by cults (Trinity Rep explored this same theme in last year's production of ``Jonestown Express,'' about the Guyana cult) and rigid fundamentalism, he is warning us that people desperate to believe in a man of God can be blinded to his faults. And he couches this message in a production of great verve.

Jenkins doesn't so much move the production from the 17th to the 20th century as straddle them. Ancient religious paraphernalia, as well as a life-size cardboard Jesus with a neon halo, crowd the space. He gives the family a stereotypically Midwestern flat diction and naivet'e. The father, Orgon (Daniel Von Bargen), is as vacantly beaming as what used to be known in the '60s as a ``Jesus freak.''

William Lane's costumes also blend the two centuries: Pilgrim-looking buckled shoes and breeches with ties and preppie sweaters, the daughter with the cotton-candy Barbie-doll hair and long wads of Kleenex stuck in her corseted bodice.

Jenkins milks every ounce of goofiness from the scenes. When the two painfully shy lovers, Valere (David P. B. Stephens), and Mariane (Becca Lish), meet, she unconsciously shreds his blue tie, and both wobble tentatively in their white shoes. When they quarrel and start to leave, the maid (Barbara Meek) doesn't have to chase them: They each fly to the door, stop themselves, and run back.

The humor of the production recalls the speed and lunacy of the Marx Brothers and, like them, often pushes the line of believability. Only once, in the scene when Tartuffe gets caught, does it step into gratuitous lasciviousness. But the acting is consistently delightful, and Trinity's sense of ensemble is what one would expect in a 20-year-old company, almost like breathing.

Violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz was great because, among other things, he could make junk sound like a masterpiece. Heifetz had the nerve and artistic personality to play, say, ``Tea for Two'' with the same fierce concentration as the Bach ``Chaconne.'' It is for the same reason that Kurt Masur is one of the finest conductors alive. He can do justice to more than the great works of Beethoven and Brahms. This East German also has the rare ability to elevate lesser efforts to greatness. That talent was in evidence at Saturday night's performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, when Masur dug into two pieces from a standard Pops repertoire: ``Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,'' by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Edvard Grieg's incidental music for ``Peer Gynt.''

Rachmaninoff struggled all his life to master the well-trod variation path, and this opus represents the culmination of his efforts. It is a heroically romantic work and an exhibition of pianistic virtuosity.

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Piano soloist Cecile Ousset, making her local debut, was up to the task. She has power to burn and, regardless of the technical acrobatics demanded in the music, does not appear to test the limits of her capabilities. Masur was the ever-attentive accompanist, unveiling textual and rhythmic subtleties in the score.

After intermission, Masur marshaled the forces of classical actor Friedhelm Eberle, five vocal soloists, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for the Grieg. Masur and Eberle had fashioned a narrative incorporating important scenes from Ibsen's play in an attempt to give context to this piece, as well as to present some of the less-often-performed parts. By and large, it just proved how mismatched Grieg's idyllic score and Ibsen's taut, surrealistic text are when put together.

Eberle's rather spasmodic exhortations as narrator irritated after a few minutes. Soprano Shari Saunders, her expressionless voice as thin as gruel, was the exact opposite of what her character, Solveig, should have been. The other soloists were all but unintelligible.

But Masur's careful attention to texture, once again, carried the evening. Grieg's famous depiction of sunrise over the sands of Morocco (no, it's not the fjords of Norway) came through in suitably burnished hues by the BSO woodwinds. The strings were ravishingly lush in Aase's death scene. ``The Hall of the Mountain King'' came through with appropriately demonic force. Generally, the orchestra sounded wonderful throughout.

Tuesday was a night for duets when the American Ballet Theatre opened at the Wang Center. In the black swan pas de deux from ``Swan Lake,'' Cynthia Gregory turned like a gyroscope, so often that the audience laughed at her audacity. When she swung her leg forward from arabesque toward her partner, Fernando Bujones, it was as if she was dismissing him with her whole body. Her arms didn't flutter, they rippled. Bujones was just about a match for her. He semed to kick a foot up and then just follow it, his body arcing after it as if he were leaping over a wall. The duet was a beautiful duel.

Oddly, the evening's romance came from the 1980s. Lynne Taylor-Corbett's ``Great Galloping Gottschalk'' is danced to bumptious piano tunes by American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Its duet comes after a deliciously fast first section in which Elaine Kudo dances a brilliant solo -- amid eight people doing another dance.

The duet, too, is funny. Susan Jaffe and Robert La Fosse start out subtly dancing away from each other, turning in opposite directions. When she puts her arms above her head like a 19th-century ballerina, he doesn't take her waist, he puts his arms over his head and dances with her. La Fosse, who towers over Jaffe, leans back on her like an exhausted swan against a prince. But it's not just a sassy role-reversal. There is something lovely about the way she rocks him. Nineteenth-century conventions are visibly discarded for 20th-century self-sufficiency, but the romance remains. La Fosse lifts Jaffe over his head so that her torso is upright above him -- upside down. She stays up long enough to make you gasp, then crooks one leg and seems to climb sturdily down on an invisible ladder. All this is very fast and slippery, as if the dancers were swimming through the music.

The busy, good-hearted ``Gottschalk'' was a perfect counterpoint to Cynthia Gregory taking on Fernando Bujones, and an alluring precursor to the new Kenneth MacMillan production of Prokofiev's ``Romeo and Juliet'' this weekend.

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