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article imageReview: Toronto 'Tartuffe' has good moments, odd directorial choices Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Aug 14, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - It's a tricky business, trying to make an old theatre warhorse seem fresh and new. Bold or eccentric choices can spark new life into a classic, or they can massacre it. Soulpepper's new mounting of “Tartuffe” tastes both ends of the lollipop.
Director László Marton has a mixed record with the Toronto company (his 2009 take on Ferenc Molnár's The Guardsman, which I reviewed for EYE WEEKLY, often felt like a lame high-school production). With Molière's great comedy Tartuffe — which opened at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts on Tuesday — Marton's updated version gets some things right, but counters them with decisions that are either uninspired or just baffling.
On the plus side is Soulpepper regular Diego Matamoros, who's funny and deliciously slimy as the hypocritical title character. A mooching impostor who has manipulated wealthy bourgeois Orgon (Oliver Dennis) into letting him live in his house, Tartuffe puts on a big show of being pious and chaste, even bowing on the floor before a picture of Jesus and dressing in priest-like black garb. Most of Orgon's family sees through the act, but Orgon is so hypnotized by Tartuffe's feigned virtue that he even plans to marry his daughter, Mariane (Katherine Gauthier), to the swine — despite her engagement to the sincere Valère (Gordon Hecht). It isn't long before Orgon's hot-tempered son, Damis (Colin Palangio), catches Tartuffe trying to seduce Orgon's wife, Elmire (Raquel Duffy), although it takes the stubborn Orgon a while to catch on.
In a famous later scene, Elmire sets Tartuffe up to try to seduce her again, with Orgon hiding under a covered table. Matamoros and Duffy have actually performed this scene before, in Marton's 2012 production of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Royal Comedians; Matamoros played Molière as Tartuffe, while Duffy played actress Madeleine Béjart as Elmire. Marton's manically funny version of the scene is far more raunchy and animalistic than anything Molière likely intended: Matamoros tears off his shirt and Duffy's dress, spits wine at her, crawls over her on the table and shows you a little more of him than you wanted to see. “Be my pupil / And I shall teach you how to conquer scruple,” he tells Duffy, as per Richard Wilbur's translation — and Elmire's near-submission doesn't seem entirely feigned.
Another scene that works well, also bursting with frantic energy, is the earlier one in which smart-alecky housemaid Dorine (Oyin Oladejo) acts as peacemaker between the quarrelling Mariane and Valère. Oladejo's performance, in fact, gives you the impression that Dorine's by far the smartest person in that house, or at least that she understands the other characters better than they do themselves. She's the only one who truly stands up to Orgon's foolishness, with sarcasm and wit, and she devises the original plan to reveal Tartuffe's treachery.
Other fine performances come from Duffy, who adds a sexy but knowing edge to Elmire, and Gregory Prest, as her sensible brother Cléante. Prest has a knack for delivering lines like, “Good God, man! Have you lost your common sense?” and “I don't pretend to be a sage,” in a way that sounds natural and real, despite Wilbur's translated iambic pentametre and rhyming couplets. And Frank Cox-O'Connell, in a silent role as Tartuffe's servant, has an amusing, brief walk-on appearance in which he emulates his master's mooching ways; it's the earlier set-up that makes it work.
Despite these strong cast members, the play is hurt by unimaginative performances in two key roles. As head of the family, Orgon should convey a measure of authority, in addition to being an easily bamboozled sap. Dennis has the sap part down, but his Orgon is more of a whiny wimp than a high-status, overbearing husband and father — undermining Molière's satire of bourgeois arrogance. Dennis also misses some good comedic opportunities, such as the way he mistimes Orgon's evasive hemming and hawing over his plans for Mariane. Meanwhile, Orgon's mother, Madame Pernelle, is supposed to be sort of the Lady Violet Crawley of the play, but Brenda Robins makes her come off as fussy and insulting rather than amusing or witty.
While Marton imbues certain scenes with high energy and compelling farce, he doesn't seem to know how to make some others flow. Particularly in the first half, actors often resort to reciting Wilbur's dialogue without any interesting actions or business to back it up, making the play seem overly verbose to a modern audience. Lorenzo Savoini's set, a large central room in Orgon's house, is practical in the way it lets performers move walls aside to eavesdrop through cracks, but it's also puzzlingly blank; why no pictures, bookshelves or even mirrors, to create the atmosphere of a convincing drawing room?
Most confusing are Victoria Wallace's “modern” costume choices. A prologue shows the cast in casual dress grabbing seventeenth-century costumes from clothing racks, only to switch to more contemporary garb for the actual play. The intention of this remains a mystery to me, unless it's meant as an awkward metaphor for Tartuffe being a wolf in sheep's clothing or whatever. But even the mix of costumes used makes the intended setting unclear; it looks as if a costume designer from the year 2400 just threw a variety of plausible twentieth-century duds together and called it a day.
For example, Orgon is done up like a suited middle-aged businessman, while brother-in-law Cléante is decked out like a west-end bearded hipster, complete with scarf, jacket and glasses. Damis is a goateed, leather-jacketed greaser, Valère is a feather-haired, sweatered college geek reminiscent of the young Bill Gates, and Dorine is in an old-fashioned maid's uniform. (Not to take away from Oladejo's performance, which I liked, but you have to wonder why Morton decided to cast a token African Canadian as the maid. Accidental racism? Or was the setting supposed to be 1950s Mississippi?)
Soulpepper's Tartuffe has potential to be a great, hilarious production, but it's inconsistent. It alternates between high and low energy when it should be keeping up the levels it hits in the more manic and aggressive scenes. Whenever Matamoros is onstage, though, it's at its best.
Tartuffe runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until September 20.
More about Theatre, Stage, moliere, Comedy, Toronto
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