Translated by Ranjit Bolt
Directed by Chris Abraham
At the Festival Theatre. Till October 13, 2017
Although you would never know it from Chris Abraham’s wildly raucous and coarse version that is about as low as low farce could go, Tartuffe is a high comedy about arch hypocrisy and other human foibles. Moliere and his play ran afoul of the Church and even, to some appreciable degree, Louis XIV. The best version I ever saw (in Richard Wilbur’s superb English translation) was Jean Gascon’s, in which the incomparable William Hutt gave one of his greatest performances as the title character who dupes the master of a bourgeois household by displays of false piety. Gascon had an almost unbeatable cast, all of whom seemed to be marvellously suited to their roles, and Gascon had indisputable Gallic flair as director. Chris Abraham has a few strong actors in his cast but Abraham is a populist director with a finger on the pulse of fads and manners, and sometimes his work is highly engaging and intelligent—as in his staging of The Matchmaker and the central comedy of The Taming of the Shrew. However, his version of Tartuffe is re-contextualised far from France, beginning (for no sensible reason) with a loud wild party in progress (called “an orgy in Babylon” by the imposing Mme. Pernelle) and then later showing us a Tartuffe who strips down to his very underwear. While this is undeniably caviar to the general. it is poison to those who favour wit, sense, sensibility, and style.
Tartuffe is not, of course, the most important character. Thank goodness, for even in this wayward production, Tom Rooney’s bizarre interpretation of the role as a sort of latter-day Rasputin with long, oily locks and a black jacket over a black cassock, who has trouble with English pronunciation as well as the verse rhythms that he slows down as if in need of an ESL instructor, doesn’t hold a candle to Graham Abbey’s exceptionally funny and vulnerable Orgon, a man with blinders on, even though he is in peak physical condition as he races up and down Julie Fox’s two-storey setting (contemporary chic with modern appurtenances), makes himself espresso and smoothies, performs push-ups, and makes a certifiable ass of himself by worshipping his false idol who has oiled his way into his trust, guardianship, and generosity. Abbey is also one who knows his way with Ranjit Bolt’s jaunty mod rhyming dialogue that dares to be vulgar in the showiest contemporary vein, making audience and Moliere feel “fucked” all the way down to the denouement. Another sterling verse-speaker is Rosemary Dunsmore as Madame Pernelle (Orgon’s mother), a tempest of disgruntlement who earns a great laugh when she complains aggressively “May I be heard?” after her mighty gusts of grievances. And a third (sleekly sexy, to boot) is Maev Beaty as Elmire (Orgon’s much-tested wife). As her clear-eyed, pontificating brother Cleante, Michael Blake also has moments of gleaming articulation, as does Rod Beattie as officious Monsieur Loyal.
Apart from losing the French flavour of the play, and making a mess of many scenes—none as much as the attempted seduction scene, where the designer’s living-room furniture affords the most improbable hiding-place for Orgon to overhear his false “idol’s” hypocrisy—director Abraham fails to harmonize his cast, or, at least, to temper many of the outrages performed by Anusree Roy as Dorine, the saucy maid. Unable to negotiate the verse with any semblance of real impertinent wit, Roy is guilty of the worst excesses of Bollywood, with her incessant eye-rolls, and flamboyant overacting in which virtually every corporeal extremity appears to be in motion, whether warranted or not.
Director Abraham continues his acknowledgement of the modern age—or, at least, of North American vulgarity—by the very pointed allusions to the disgusting blight of Trumpism. All good for easy laughter, but the production exposes some of the worst aspects of Abraham as director. Instead of illuminating Moliere’s great satiric comedy with very dark undertones, this production revels in being a simple, silly fable that is unbalanced, unconvincing, and vulgarly conceived. It is certainly a crowd-pleaser, as Trump has been for his rabid base. But as recent events have shown, a crowd-pleaser can cause a nation to lose its collective mind, let alone its taste.