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Theatre in Review: Tartuffe (Phoenix Theatre Ensemble/The Wild Project)

Josh Tyson. Photo: Debbi Hobson

I hope I'm not making too radical a statement here, but I think that if you're going to stage Tartuffe, it ought to be funny.

I'm not being facetious. For all their brilliance, the plays of Molière are slippery creatures; you must handle them just so, or you'll lose control of them. Many are the productions I have seen that have succumbed to endless fussy bits of bustling about, everyone signaling wildly to the audience their awareness that they're in a comedy and they're going to be funny, dammit. To its credit, Craig Smith's staging at the Wild Project is free of this sort of fooling around: There are no incidents of mugging or speaking in funny voices or waving handkerchiefs in elaborate displays of semaphore. Instead, this Tartuffe falls into another category: Smith and company, finding a contemporary urgency in the playwright's message, bypass comedy altogether. This is a Tartuffe that blazes with anger and smolders with sexuality; it has much to say about religiosity as a smoke screen behind which corruption lurks. It is conscientious and, if unconventional in certain aspects, generally well thought out. But I dearly missed the laughter.

Indeed, this production is fairly bursting with barely repressed passions. Most often, Tartuffe is presented as a rather seedy, if not outright unhygienic, fellow; the idea of him pawing at Elmire and Mariane, wife and daughter of his boneheaded sponsor, Orgon, should be comically horrible. Here, however, Tartuffe is played by the rather handsome and in-shape Josh Tyson, who enjoys removing his robes to reveal a chest covered with tattoos. Even odder, the nonspeaking role of Laurant, Tartuffe's servant, has been built up; suffice to say, their connection often seems more than brotherly, and not just when Tartuffe plants a kiss on his servant's lips. If Mariane is horrified to hear of her impending engagement to Tartuffe (as demanded by Orgon) she is in a positive panic when Dorine, the maid, offers a preview of the wedding night, suggesting that poor Mariane will be trapped in a three-way with Tartuffe and Laurant. Then again, there's some evidence that Orgon wouldn't mind some alone time with Tartuffe himself. The first act ends with Orgon fooled by Tartuffe once again -- and straddling him on a table, uttering cries of victory that sound as if he is achieving orgasm. And, for reasons that I am unable to grasp, the entire cast, attractively costumed by Debbi Hobson in the first half, spends the second half in white period underwear, with both male ingenues striding about shirtless. At one point, Orgon even addresses everyone, telling them to put on some clothes.

Yet for all this bodice-ripping activity and steamy same-sex glances, this is an essentially Puritan interpretation of this classic farce. For it to succeed, we have to enjoy Tartuffe, at least at first; we must appreciate the professionalism of his con game and the zest with which he covertly pursues money and women. Only near the end, when it looks as if, thanks to his machinations, Orgon and his family will be dispossessed of their wealth and home, should we finally turn against him. Tyson instead gives us a Tartuffe of unbridled evil. Striking poses lifted from religious icons, moving about in a cloud of ascetic piety, he is more menacing than humorous. His gaze may be otherworldly, but there's a faint curl to his lips, a hint of contempt that carries a scent of brimstone about it. He isn't a transparent rascal; rather, he is a clear and present danger, a psychopath in monastic garb, and rather than being amused at his intrigues, one wants him caught and locked up, ASAP.

With a living, breathing monster at the center of the action, not really requiring unmasking, the rest of the characters are left looking rather skittish, impotently wringing their hands as he establishes his reign of terror. As a result, the play's seemingly surefire comic set pieces -- especially the sequence in which Orgon, being told about one family calamity after another, only wants to hear about Tartuffe, and the scene in which Elmire tries to seductively entrap Tartuffe, with Orgon hidden under the table -- don't really pay off.

Among the cast, Elise Stone, her bosom pushed nearly up to the ceiling, makes a game and well-spoken Elmire; Alicia Marie Beatty knows how to stage a faint as Mariane; and Wesli Spencer, as Valere, Mariane's would-be lover, has a nice, casual way with a line. For my money, David Ball's translation is a little on the rough side -- he seems to try to work the words "belch" and "fart" into every possible speech -- but it has some vivid passages, too. (I can't help but prefer Richard Wilbur's divine way with a rhymed couplet.) Attilio Rigotti's projections fill the blank walls of the set with period décor. Tsubasa Kamei's lighting and Ellen Mandel's sound design and original music are also fine.

But this is one of the least enjoyable Tartuffes of my theatregoing career. Instead of a smile of complicity, this production offers a chilling sneer. -- David Barbour

(1 November 2017)

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