Emilia Di Luca
The words of comedic dramatist Molière appear on the playbill of Soulpepper’s Tartuffe: “Life is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think.” Tartuffe’s characters prove the former, and director László Marton proves the latter. Unlike Diego Matamoros’ Tartuffe, Matron does not try to persuade his audience to feel as much as he urges it to think—about theatre.
In Molière’s infamous Tartuffe, a con man feigns piety to steal the fortunes of Orgon (Oliver Denis) and covet his wife, Elmire (Raquel Duffy). Tartuffe destroys Organ’s family until at the very last second, by the power of theatre, an anonymous king restores justice and saves Organ’s family. That’s how the term “Tartuffe,” a religious hypocrite, came to be.
Ironically, Marton does not “tartuffify” the production; his show does not pose as reality the way Tartuffe pretends to be religious. Through set and costume, this production announces itself as theatre, and in doing so, it opens opportunities for comedy outside of Molière’s text.
Except for the rhyming couplets, Soulpepper’s Tartuffe, translated by Richard Wilbur, discards its 17th century aesthetic for a more modern one. Usually, characters wearing sundresses and glasses do not speak in verse, but Marton theatricalizes his choices on stage and asks us to play along.
To begin, the stage hosts Brenda Robins (Mme Pernelle) prepping for the show, a ghost light shining center stage, and costume racks holding wigs, gowns, and masks. Even the wooden interiors of the fake walls face us. At the sound of Restoration music (by Richard Feren), the ensemble storms the stage as though they are backstage, slipping into period costumes, only to collectively disprove of the wardrobe. Next time we see the actors, they are wearing modern garb (thanks to costume designer Victoria Wallace).
Throughout the first half, characters, namely Organ’s saucy servant Dorine (Oyin Oladejo), piece Lorenzo Savoini’s set together. Blank white walls with doors form the living space, which uses heavily decorated fabrics to fashion chairs. The makeshift furniture isn’t believable (or pretty for that matter), but it doesn’t have to be. As Matron reminds us from the beginning: this isn’t real.
Similarly, that’s what Molière reminds his audience in the end. Theatre isn’t real so let’s play, let’s get away with things, let’s think! Marton exaggerates Molière’s already extravagant deus ex machina to a hilarious degree. Thanks to theatre tricks, chandeliers descend, a carpet unrolls, music plays, and a tiny trolley strolls ahead holding a letter from the king. The elaborate display unfolds as though an invisible hand moves the pieces. Indeed, this is the funniest moment of the play.
The raunchiness of Tartuffe and Elmire (trousers slip off and panties go flying), the aggression of Damis (Colin Palangio), and the awkwardness of Laurent (Frank Cox-O’Connell) hold our attention. Still, sometimes dialogue-heavy scenes become tedious—I was constantly hoping to see eavesdropping characters that would be moving the walls and poking their heads in ever so humorously.
Nonetheless, the cast of resident and academy actors deliver a smart and funny show with the perfect irony. That is, Molière’s character Tartuffe feigns piety to fool Orgon, but Marton’s production of Tartuffe admits its theatrical genre to entertain its audience. Marton relies on little bits of theatre magic (i.e. moving walls, giant fabrics) to wink at us, the audience. And if we like what we see, we wink back.
See Soulpepper’s Tartuffe at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until September 20th. For tickets and more information, visit https://www.soulpepper.ca/performances/14_season/tartuffe.aspx#overview.
photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann