BWW Reviews: 'TARTUFFE' Sparkles With Comedy And Drama
Underneath the riotous comedy of Moliere's 1664 play Tartuffe is a tough family drama examining ideas of trust, power, and hypocrisy. Soulpepper Theatre Company's new production (on now through September 20th at the Young Centre) underlines these themes while providing plenty of laughs and a smart, contemporary take on a classic work.
Director Laszlo Marton opens the production with clothing racks full of seventeenth century costumes (and music to match), with members of the ensemble trying on outfits and playfully teasing one another. It's an interestingly meta-theatrical moment that underlines the artifice (its appeal, its dangers) sitting at the heart of Moliere's work. As actor and Soulpepper co-founder Diego Matamoros notes in the program notes, "All of the characters... are toying with their sense of theatre - their sense of playing a role to get what they desire." Oscar Wilde may well have been speaking of Tartuffe in mind when he famously noted, "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." Indeed, the various masks the characters wear, with the main character (played here by Matamoros) wearing a mask of piety that fools Orgon (Oliver Dennis), reveals an uglier truth: the human propensity to be deceived most by that which we aspire to, by that which speaks to our deepest desires and unfulfilled longings. For him, Tartuffe (and his elaborate masquerade) ignites his feelings of male powerlessness, his longing for grace, and his desire to be viewed as righteous and, respectful, a man worth reckoning with. The main character, narcissistic, predatory, and calculating, who ensures, to borrow from Hamlet, his worshipper soaks up "his countenance, his rewards, his authorities." At once funny and disturbing, the work tipped Moliere out of his popular position with both the court and the French aristocracy, who were offended by its ruthless portrayal (and mockery) of religion and power, and it was banned until 1669. The playwright died just four years later.
The story of Tartuffe is simple: Orgon is under the spell of the seemingly-religious title character, and has signed over his house and fortune. The gullible father plans on forcing a marriage between his daughter Mariane (Katherine Gauthier) and Tartuffe, even though she is already in love with Valere (Gordon Hecht). It's only when Tartuffe attempts to seduce Orgon's wife Elmire (Raquel Duffy) that Orgon sees his supposed friend's hypocrisy, but by then it's too late, as delicate, compromising political documents have been turned over to the King, and Orgon and his family are forced out of their home. Reprieve comes unexpectedly, and justice is swiftly meted.
Director Marton strikes the thematic undertone of artifice repeatedly, with varied rhythm and volume, from the production's opening scenes, where the audience sees the rough backs of the sets (later turned around to reveal plain white walls), to the way sumptuous fabrics are draped over plain, ugly pieces of furniture, and used to conceal, reveal, comfort, distort. Set designer Lorenzo Savoini plays with visual notions of the decadent and the debauched in clever ways, highlighting the work's subtexts while illuminating individual character arcs and pushing the narrative ever forwards. The miniature carriage rolled out at the play's end is a surreal bit of playfulness in keeping with the overall tone and feel Marton has set for the play, one that liberally mixes the strange and the strangely familiar. Setting the action in a non-descript place and time allows for Moliere's rhyming couplet dialogue (expertly translated by Richard Wilbur) to shine especially brightly, with Gregory Prest (as good guy Cleante) and maid Dorine (Oyin Oladejo) offering especially clear, contemporary readings and striking performances. The rest of the cast is just as endearing, with Duffy's elegant, smart portrayal of Elmire providing a striking contrast to Colin Palangio's angry, vitriolic Damis, son of Orgon, whose frustration with his father's blindness turns itself inside out in realizing the extent of that blindness.
As the title character, Matamoros offers a scintillatingly slimy portrait; his Tartuffe is equal parts pious, piggish, and pernicious, with a barely-concealed cruelty. One half-expects to see scales on his back when he rips off his shirt to seduce Elmire. His is not a lovable rogue but a villainous narcissist, and somehow, his ending feels unsatisfying, too easy, too pat. We are as dazed as Orgon's family at the play's end, when they look upwards, amidst the chunky gold flakes falling from above, wondering at the nature of glitter and artifice, stunned at our propensity to be fooled, flattered, lied to, and deceived. Moliere's work isn't solely a funny aside, but a harsh examination of human nature in relation to power and authority in both micro and macro ways. Thanks to Marton's smart production, we're able to laugh as well as reflect on our own Tartuffes, the inner ones and the outer ones, those Tartuffes that are obvious, but more importantly, those that are sly, stealthy, and silent. What will we do? Can we live without the mask? Should we? Tartuffe lets you decide, with a smile and a wink.