Stage Door Review

Tartuffe

Thursday, January 17, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Molière, translated by Ranjit Bolt, directed by Chris Abraham

Stratford Festival, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto

January 17-27, 2019

Cléante: “Il est de faux dévots, ainsi que de faux braves”

The Stratford Festival’s fourth production of Molière’s Tartuffe is a great success. Not seen at Stratford since 2000, the latest production forgoes 17th-century design for the 21st century and Richard Wilbur’s classic translation for the up-to-the-minute translation of Ranjit Bolt. The result is a re-energized vision of the classic comedy that makes it speak directly to today’s concerns about moral leadership.

As you enter the Festival Theatre you are confronted with the show’s greatest flaw. Julie Fox’s square ultramodern set of Orgon’s home looks like it was designed for a proscenium stage like that at the Avon Theatre but has been plopped down on top of the Festival stage looking completely alien and making no reference to it. The set has only three entrances – a door at the back of the kitchen/living room which would be where the central entrance to the stage would be, an entrance stage left corresponding to nothing and the main entrance to the apartment a floor above the kitchen entrance that corresponds to where the balcony would be. Even viewed on its own the geography of the set makes no sense. Who in their right mind would buy an apartment where to access the kitchen or living room from the front door requires descending two flights of stairs?

While we never really get used to the set, once the play begins our focus shifts to the actions and words. Director Chris Abraham does make good dramatic use of the flights of stairs for Madame Pernelle’s exit or for entrances by Orgon or Tartuffe. Otherwise, Abraham sets the action almost exclusively on kitchen/living room floor as he would at the Avon.

Those attuned to Molière’s original text or to Richard Wilbur’s 1963 translation that so well captures the elegance of Molière’s wit will have to prepare themselves for Ranjit Bolt’s uncompromisingly contemporary translation. He keeps the structure of iambic pentameter and the rhyming couplets that Wilbur uses but his language is altogether more modern. Bolt first translated Tartuffe in 1991 and then retranslated it in 2002 . Now he has brought the new text up to date with references to the internet. At the end of a tiff between lover’s Marianne and Valere, they both threaten to “unfriend” each other. Even funnier are phrases torn directed from current White House tweets like “fake news”, “alternative facts” and even “covfefe”, whatever that means. References to “dry-cleaning” and “hard-drives” may be surprising to some, but Bolt actually follows the gist of Molière’s text quite closely especially in key debates between Cléante and Orgon or in Tartuffe’s attempted seduction of Elmire.

The principal roles are very well cast. Though Tartuffe may be the title character, he is not in fact the comedy’s main blocking figure. In Molière’s greatest plays the blocking figure is a monomaniac. In L’École des femmes (1662), the aged, jealous Arnolphe prevents the girl he wants to marry from meeting any other men. In Le Misanthrope (1666) Alceste’s hatred for humanity causes the break-up of his own love life. In L’Avare (1668), Harpagon’s greed seeks to prevent his young daughter’s love. And in Le Malade imaginaire (1673) Argan’s hypochondria makes him want to force his daughter to wed a foolish doctor.

In Tartuffe, the monomaniac is Orgon (Graham Abbey), who for unknown reasons falls under the spell of the titular religious con man. While vices such as jealousy, hatred, greed or follies such as hypochondria may have blocked the marriage of young people in love, here it is Orgon’s reawakened religious zeal, which some might think a virtue. That, of course, is one of the sources of the controversy that surrounded the play even in its own time. Orgon’s zeal, however, is flawed because it is both immoderate and misplaced. Orgon is as guilty of self-deception in the realm of religion as is Argan in the realm of medicine.

Orgon is a role quite unlike the heroic roles Abbey has played before at Stratford and proves that Abbey has a true gift for verbal and physical comedy that has previously lay hidden. His comic timing is spot-on and his movement on stage is more fluid than he has ever shown before. Of prime importance is Abbey’s characterization of Orgon as a man obsessed. He is blinded by his belief in Tartuffe and, in a way that makes the play especially relevant right now, no facts of any kind can shake that belief. It is a great performance and Abbey has such presence on stage that he ensures that the focus of the play is rightly on Orgon and his decisions rather than on Tartuffe.

This does not mean that Tartuffe (Tom Rooney) is not important. Rather Abraham has the wisdom to see, unlike far too many directors of this play, that Tartuffe is not, in fact, a comic character. He is an utter villain and the proclamation of his heinous acts at the end of the play should not come as a surprise, as it too often does, but as a confirmation of the personality of the dangerous man that Orgon has let into his life. Therefore, Rooney’s Tartuffe, looking like Albrecht Dürer’s famous Christ-like self-portrait, says everything throughout the play with utter earnestness. Even when Orgon’s family fly at him in anger, he remains calm and speaks in the same deliberate tones he has used before. Except in the famous seduction scene with Elmire, where his carnal fervour starts to get the better of him, Rooney lets us think that Tartuffe is devoid of emotion, a ploy we note that only causes Orgon to dote on him more. The one curious feature of Rooney’s performance is his use of a vaguely Slavic accent. If Abraham is trying to make some political comment by this means it doesn’t work.

The one member of Orgon’s household who has the least hesitation in calling out Tartuffe as a hypocrite is Orgon’s maid, Dorine. Anusree Roy* brings her vividly to life as she hurls her her trenchant irony at both Orgon and Tartuffe. Even when Orgon forbids her from speaking, Roy has Dorine say as much with her body language as she did with her tongue.

Maev Beaty makes an elegant Elmire, Orgon’s second wife and the objet of Tartuffe’s lust. Beaty’s best scene is the seduction scene where Elmire’s timid attempts at flirtation unleash so strong an effect that she struggles to scale back the fire that she has ignited in Tartuffe.

Michael Blake, who speaks verse so clearly, is well cast as as the raisonneur figure Cléante, Elmire’s brother. Unlike some directors, Abraham allows Blake to make Cléante human as well as reasonable so that Blake shows us Cléante coming near to losing his temper when Orgon adamantly refuses to listen. Rosemary Dunsmore’s Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother, is just the opposite. Dunsmore starts her out spewing invective at the entire family who hate Tartuffe and criticize Orgon. She won’t even listen to Orgon when he finally has seen through Tartuffe’s treachery. It is a moment both comic yet devastating, when we see that only proof of the financial ruin Tartuffe has wrought can cause Madame Pernelle to see the light.

Except for Jonathan Sousa, who makes a dashing if impulsive Valere, Marianne’s beloved, the younger generation is not portrayed with as much strength as he older. Mercedes Morris tends to whine out her role as Orgon’s daughter Marianne and Emilio Vieira tends to shout out his role as Orgon’s son Damis so that the words of neither come across clearly.

Despite its flaws this is a very strong production that will have you laughing out loud throughout, before it brings you up short, as it does Orgon and his family, that Tartuffe actually has the power to destroy them. Then, just when you think you have figured out the contemporary commentary that Abraham has made of the play, he turns Molière’s deus ex machina in the form of the King’s Officer (E.B. White) into an hilarious surprise. For some traditionalists all of Bolt’s and Abraham’s changes may be too much. But true fans of Molière will see that in making Tartuffe so contemporary, Bolt and Abraham have also given it the same kind of bite it must have had in Molière’s time, a bite that made it the most controversial of all his plays. See it and enjoy Molière’s keen insight into human nature and its dangerous foibles.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is of the original Stratford Festival production now being presented by Canadian Stage, Crow’s Theatre and Groundling Theatre Company. *Akosua Amo-Adem now plays Dorine, but otherwise the cast and creative team are the same.

Photo: (from top) Maev Beaty as Elmire and Tom Rooney as Tartuffe; Michael Blake as Cleante and Graham Abbey as Orgon. © 2017 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit www.canadianstage.com.