BWW Reviews: St Edwards University Puts Modern Spin on TARTUFFE
It's astounding and a little sad that of all the things that have fallen out of style since the 1600s, hypocrisy isn't one of them. Thankfully though, comedy isn't one of them either. Both hypocrisy and comedy take center stage in St Edwards University's production of Tartuffe, an interesting and often wonderful modern take on Moliere's classic play about a deceitful religious devotee who brings chaos in his wake when he becomes a houseguest to the spiritual but foolish Orgon.
The contemporary touches spring from the new translation by Ranjit Bolt which mixes rhyming couplets and prose. Bolt's translation has one foot planted in the old and one in the new, resulting in a unique and often surprising retelling of Moliere's celebrated work. Director David Long uses the more current flourishes in Bolt's text as a springboard for the entire piece. Rather than staging the piece in 1600s France, the setting is now modern day Texas. Orgon's upper-class household, delightfully realized by set and properties designer Ia Enstera, features a giant Texas star over each doorway.
But aside from the Texas stars, modern dress, and cell phones, there's not much else which sets the piece in the present. Setting the show in our day is a wise choice as hypocrisy is as problematic and widespread today as it was 400 years ago, but Long and company don't connect the dots as much as you may wish. Orgon's home could be well served by more visual clues to tie the themes and the setting. For a play about religious hypocrisy, it's odd that there's only one small crucifix anywhere on the set. Some more religious iconography could help. Hell, a photo of Orgon and Tartuffe with Pat Robertson would be a very welcome visual gag.
Despite a few missed opportunities regarding the correlation between the setting and overall themes of the play, the cast is, for the most part, extraordinary and deliciously funny. Though she gets a limited amount of stage time, guest artist Barbara Chisholm is fantastic as Madame Pernelle, Orgon's mean-spirited and impeccably dressed mother. Fellow guest artist Liz Beckham gives a strong performance as Orgon's wife, Elmire, particularly when she gets to showcase her gifts at physical comedy in the play's infamous table scene. Jose Antonio Rodriguez plays Tartuffe as a truly unsympathetic character, but he wisely chooses not to play Tartuffe as a dastardly villain until the final moments. Until then, it's quite easy to believe that perhaps Tartuffe is devout but flawed, particularly when it comes to the sin of lust. And as Dorine, Vanessa Guadiana gives a scene-stealing, ridiculously funny performance. She plays the maid as a sassy Latino woman, and while lesser actresses would let the character descend into stereotypes, Guadiana tip-toes up to that line but doesn't cross it. Dorine may be the maid, but she's smarter than the rich white people who surround her, and that's largely due to Guadiana's brilliant performance.
The only weak link in the cast is guest artist Jamie Goodwin as Orgon. Goodwin gives a performance that feels too big for the intimate Mary Moody Northen Theatre. The comedy in Moliere's plays comes from the dialogue, situations, and characters. Those elements have kept audiences laughing for over 400 years, but Goodwin doesn't grasp that idea. He tries to make his character funnier by chewing the scenery, pulling focus, and practically asking for the laughs, and he gets very few in the process.
Still, even with a couple minor issues regarding the underutilized setting and one overexerted actor, Tartuffe still does what it sets out to do. It makes us laugh. If only hypocrisy was always this harmless and funny.
TARTUFFE closes at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre at St. Edwards University today, Sunday February 23rd at 2pm.
The next production at Mary Moody Northen Theatre, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, plays April 3-13. For tickets and information, please visit http://think.stedwards.edu/theatre/