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Tartuffe at the Masquers

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By Theresa de Valence - Posted on 30 March 2008

If you’ve never seen the Ranjit Bolt translation of Tartuffe you deserve the experience. The original written by Molière was first produced in 1664 at Versailles. In 2002 Ranjit Bolt updated his translation to a modern play with marvelous rhyming couplets. This production is directed by Paul Shepard.

I was very confused when I saw this performance (being unfamiliar with the plot). My response was to see the play again the following weekend, an unlikely recourse for most people. I didn’t stay confused, but I did lose the first half hour of the show. During the second viewing I clarified the relationships amongst characters for others in the audience around me, just as others had done for me, so I knew that I was not alone in my confusion. This would have been obviated had the relationships been clear: his wife, his wife’s brother, his daughter’s fiancé, etc.—something which could still be printed on a sheet of paper and tucked into the programme for the rest of the run.

As a person who has often been at variance with traditional social attitudes, I am familiar with the way people gang up on an individual who does not fit the standard mold. That everyone thought Tartuffe a raging hypocrite was not enough for me, I had to see for myself. So I kept an open mind....

General Orgon (Robert Love) surprised me the first time I saw him because he began the play shuddering. I might be nervous but I doubt Robert is—perhaps the General is wound up so tight, he shakes. For the General, this is not a funny play. Like many bigots, he has narrow limits for who’s acceptable, and those he enthuses over with the fervour of a zealot. He spends most of the play duped and continues to gush in spite of mounting evidence. Eventually he is confronted with irrevocable truth and he changes his loyalty—to another small-minded truth! He is a very controlled and controlling man—he is prodded constantly, yet he manages to convey that he is very long used to being obeyed.

Elmire (Beth Chastain) wins my vote for Woman Who Most Deserves To Be Enjoying Herself. As the second wife of the General, Elmire’s marriage seems sexless, but she is loyal and rebuffs unwelcome advances with a grace which is delicately chaste. Then Elmire has the task of vamping a willing suitor. For a woman who has entered middle age to wallow in the pleasures of being lusted after by a new man is fun, indeed, and Elmire looks to be indulging herself. That she flows from one rôle into the other is grand, and, she gets to do it for six weeks! (Photo by Jerry Telfer).

Dorine (Alexaendrai Bond) is a major star in this show. As the sassy maid, she has many funny lines which she delivers with aplomb—she interrupts people left and right, finishing their rhymes. The entire play is in an exaggerated style, yet Alexaendrai’s performance is the most “natural” ... voice and gesture and stage persona fit together well. Lines rollick off her tongue, roll out smoothly and finish in a snap!

Tartuffe (Keith Jefferds), though the lead, does not appear ‘til well into the play. Tartuffe has loads of opportunity to provide visual comedy which he milks ... and milks ... and milks. Some measure of his success comes from stage directions and his costumer, Johnny Kim. Tartuffe is overwhelmingly, breathtakingly funny. It is the most elaborate and finest performance of Keith’s I have seen. He is devout, fervent, aroused, crafty, gleeful, devilish, sinister and dashed. He does it with his eyebrows, eyelashes, voice, hands and arms. Not to mention his hips and his string tie. No, I can’t tell you more about Keith’s performance without giving it away.

Madame Pernelle (Loralee Windsor) is an intransigent tartar, the opinionated mother of General Orgon—definitely a mother-in-law to avoid! It’s a humourless rôle though reminiscent of parts Loralee often plays. Because I watched the play twice, I was able to see how carefully Loralee (with some help from her costumer) conjures up her character.

Cléante (Phil Reed), the General’s brother-in-law, is the voice of reason. Naturally, nobody ever minds what he says. He preaches moderation in a perfectly balanced style reminiscent of a smooth, used car salesman, smiling constantly, his voice projecting throughout the theatre and his gestures larger than life. It’s a compelling performance, I found myself drawn to his face while others ranted.

Damis (Caspar Newlen-Brun) is the General’s young son. The first time, I was shocked by his ferocity (perhaps attributable to my being bewildered by onstage events), but by the second viewing, he was fluid and believable. Damis is a hot-headed young man who is quick to take offense, shouting and threatening people. He is reigned in by his relatives (with varying success).

Mariane (Laura Morgan) is the General’s obedient and beautiful daughter. While she has but few lines in the play, these are her smallest contribution. Her performance is delightful. Mariane has a most eloquent face—a lift of the eyebrow, pursing of the lips, and a whole commentary transpires—though not one the meek young lady would ever speak.

Valère (Greg Milholland), Mariane’s intermittent fiancé, was another character who confused me with his shuddering, though I warmed to him quickly. He is a handsome young man, anguished by being sent away by the woman he loves though he hopes she doesn’t mean it. Magnificent! Mariane and Valère have several exchanges making full use of the stage, beautifully choreographed, timed perfectly.

Robert Eichberg plays Laurent, Monsieur Loyal, and an Officer for our great amusement. Each vignette provided Robert with a moment in the sun and he enchanted us with wholly different characters: from costume, to movements, to accents.

My remarks about the actors are trifling details about this performance. I was laughing so hard I was making some kind of noise (snicking, maybe) to the consternation of my neighbour. Fortunately there was a small break in the hilarity, and I was able to catch my breath.

It’s pretty amazing to realize that while the audience are falling all over themselves laughing, onstage, the actors are able to keep a perfectly straight face—somehow it adds to the enjoyment, that those characters have no idea how funny they are.

Extremely satisfying.