Stratford Festival’s vital production of Tartuffe brings satire to the fore

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Buoyed by a confluence of current events and a deliberately provocative interpretation, there’s an absorbing vitality to the Stratford Festival’s dazzling production of Tartuffe.

This is a staging that moves, pushed forward by a brilliantly colloquial translation by playwright Ranjit Bolt and a cast that embraces the broad and biting satire of Molière’s enduring classic.

The production’s contemporary setting is a telling choice by director Chris Abraham, reinforcing the unfortunate timelessness of the play’s satirical targets. For much of Tartuffe, the credulous Orgon, played by a delightful Graham Abbey, remains under the sway of the titular hypocrite, a fraudulent holy man who worms his way into his benefactor’s luxurious home. Through his scheming – and “pantomime piety” – Tom Rooney’s unctuous Tartuffe quickly turns Orgon against his protesting family, despite overwhelming evidence of the imposter’s true motivations.

This push and pull is the heart of Abraham’s clever interpretation. While a victim of Tartuffe’s ruse, Orgon’s complicity in that deception – his willingness to be duped – is brought to the fore by Abraham and Abbey. Orgon so desperately wants to believe in Tartuffe’s sham saintliness that he purposefully blinds himself to the proof.

Abraham and his cast aren’t shy about making the parallels between Molière’s satire and the current American political climate explicit. Eschewing subtlety, the director and his actors spice up the couplets of Bolt’s already incisive translation with a few “bigly” Trump-isms, including an applause-getting “covfefe” and a well-timed “sad.” Abraham wants the audience to make that connection between his production’s virtuous-seeming con artist and The Donald. While some might see these additions as a little on the nose, they give some added teeth to the satire, reminding us how easily we agree to be fooled.

While Rooney’s Tartuffe doesn’t take the stage until the beginning of the third act, his presence looms over this production. From the very first scene – a glorious rant by Rosemary Dunsmore’s splenetic Mme Pernelle – Tartuffe and his virtue, or lack thereof, are the topics of every conversation. As Orgon’s family and friends try to convince him of Tartuffe’s duplicity, he becomes increasingly (and hilariously) angry. Even his even-keeled brother-in-law Cleante (Michael Blake) can’t loosen the imposter’s tightening grip.

In one of the best scenes of this staging, Dorine, Orgon’s sharp-tongued maid, challenges her employer’s rash decision to promise Tartuffe his daughter, Mariane (Mercedes Morris), in marriage, despite a previous betrothal to the kind-hearted Valere (Jonathan Sousa). Played with verve by the revelatory Anusree Roy, Dorine is more than a match for the fuming Orgon but still can’t convince him of Tartuffe’s treachery.

When Tartuffe finally saunters through the door, his pretense is made palpable by Rooney’s slick demeanour. Continuing his charade by chastising Dorine for her revealing clothing, Tartuffe soon attempts a seduction of Elmire, Orgon’s beautiful and quick-witted young wife. Despite being rebuffed – and his hypocrisy overheard by Damis, Orgon’s hot-headed son – Tartuffe remains unruffled, rightly convinced of his power over his credulous patron.

Even when Damis immediately confronts his father with proof of Tartuffe’s deceit, bluntly telling Orgon how the imposter attempted to seduce Elmire, Orgon’s belief remains unshaken. The ensuing scene is another highlight as Abbey, Rooney and Emilio Vieira’s Damis scuffle on the living room floor. Rooney’s Tartuffe continues his charade, uproariously self-flagellating with a dozen roses, while Orgon turns on his son, accusing him of deceit.

“You scheming rat, I see your game: You’re trying to tarnish his good name.”

The scene ends with Abbey’s Orgon comforting the “slandered” Tartuffe, ministering to him with wine while promising to make him the heir to his fortune.

But Rooney truly shines in his second seduction scene with Maev Beaty’s Elmire. His conniving Tartuffe –unaware that he’s being deceived – shows his true colours in a comedic tour de force, culminating in a very literal exposure. Beaty is superb as Elmire, bringing a keen wit – and a wonderful physicality – to the role. As Tartuffe continues his attempts at consummation – and a stunned Orgon remains in hiding – Beaty’s Elmire uses every limb, and the living room furniture, to preserve her own virtue.

While blessed with a uniformly stellar cast, the comedy of Abraham’s Tartuffe is bolstered by some seemingly off-the-cuff moments and character touches. Tartuffe’s penchant for breath mints serves as a sly allusion to his true nature while the end-of-play selfie is a perfect capper for a contemporary staging. The modern setting also gives some added comedic oomph to the ending, perhaps literature’s most famous deus ex machina. The use of a smartphone as a tool of salvation is an inspired choice by Abraham and, again, helps to underscore the satire.

Every element of this production – from designer Julie Fox’s modernist set to the thumping dance music during scene transitions – serves to heighten the sharply written comedy while emphasizing the persistent relevance of its satire. The laughs are constant – and welcome – but there’s an unsettling truth at its core.

Tartuffe runs in repertory at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 13.

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