Written by Molière

Toronto, Soulpepper Theatre

Starring Oliver Dennis, Diego Matamoros

 

Theatre Reviews THE GLOBE and MAIL

Venue Young Centre for the Performing Arts City Torontoqq Year 2014 Runs Until Saturday, September 20, 2014 Two years ago, Hungarian director László Marton came to Toronto’s Soulpepper to direct Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Royal Comedian, (also known as A Cabal of Hypocrites), a play about French playwright Molière’s run-in with his royal patron, Louis XIV, and the archbishop of Paris after his comedy Tartuffe premiered in 1664 The best scenes in that production, it was generally agreed, were those where we glimpsed Molière’s plays within Bulgakov’s play. Most delectable was Marton’s metatheatrical staging of the famous seduction scene from Tartuffe – with Diego Matamoros playing Molière playing the religious hypocrite Tartuffe, trying to seduce Raquel Duffy playing the actress Madeleine Béjart playing Elmire, atop a table concealing her husband.

Flash forward to this summer, and Marton is, as many of us who were in the audience of The Royal Comedians wished, directing Tartuffe at Soulpepper. And we get to see that scene play out, with the same casting, in the context of a full production.

Did we wish wisely? In fact, this entire Tartuffe is even better than hoped for: It’s Marton’s best work for Soulpepper since his take on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in 2005, and one of the funniest productions of a Molière play on an English-Canadian stage in a long while.

While it may have angered the archbishop in the 17th century, Tartuffe no longer registers as particularly impious in the age of raging atheists such as Richard Dawkins and, rest in peace, Christopher Hitchens. Anything even hovering on the edge of sacrilegious is immediately explained and apologized for in Molière’s brilliant but ultimately obsequious play.

Tartuffe (Matamoros at his most voracious) is actually a straightforward con man who inspires Orgon (Oliver Dennis at his stubborn best) to hand over his property and his daughter to him with displays of false piety. Everyone else in his family can see through his ruse, however, even the maid Dorine (a wonderful Oyin Oladejo).

Marton has found in Tartuffe, then, a more enduring theme: that of our general propensity to be taken in by beautiful performances, even and perhaps especially when it is very clear that they are lies. The director emphasizes this by beginning his production with the set facing away from the audience, and with Soulpepper’s actors coming onto the stage to get into their costumes in front of us. (They first put on 17th-century wigs and robes, then remove them and opt for modern dress.)

American poet Richard Wilbur’s classic 1963 translation, which skillfully reduces the rich French sauce of Molière’s alexandrines into the thick English glaze of iambic pentameter, is used throughout, but the actors only rarely let themselves be tethered to rhythm or rhyme. Instead, they speak the lines as naturalistically as possible, often very quietly and sometimes at a whisper.

The occasional inaudibility of this enraged one audience member two rows behind me (she cried out “Jesus Christ!” at intermission), but it is another example of the creative conflict between reality and illusion in this production. Another effect of such theatrical sacrilege is to turn the audience into eavesdroppers – an appropriate posture in a play where the characters are always listening behind doors, in closets and, most famously, under tables.

Indeed, that scene where Tartuffe’s true nature is revealed to Orgon as the hypocrite tries to seduce Elmire on top of a table is worth the two-year wait. Diego Matamoros plays the title character as a man whose appetites are the only true aspect of his nature. Right before intermission, he devours a giant bunch of grapes in front of the audience, juice running down his face and body, and when he finally gets Orgon’s wife Elmire (Duffy) alone on the table, he threatens to devour her, too. It’s raunchy – not an adjective normally applied to Molière – and there’s even the suggestion in Duffy’s performance that Elmire may actually find Tartuffe’s hunger appealing, adding sizzle to scenes normally presented prudishly.

Tartuffe’s younger cast members, pulled from the Soulpepper Academy, are generally up to the level of the company regulars. There are a couple of fine discoveries here – notably Colin Palangio as Orgon’s hot-headed son Damis, and Gordon Hecht as the dorkily ineffectual suitor Valère. As Tartuffe’s silent sidekick, Frank Cox-O’Connell manages to score one of the evening’s biggest laughs with a sly smile.

It’s not all laughter, either. Marton dangles the possibility of tragedy before us at the end. It’s translator Wilbur who noted that Orgon’s betrayal of his family creates an atmosphere that is “the comic equivalent of King Lear’s.” And you feel that here, until all is corrected in a daffy deus ex machina that has rarely been more pleasurable in its absurdity.

Usually when watching Tartuffe, it’s easy to think of Orgon as merely stupid for not seeing what is in front of him. But as audience members, we are always seeing and not seeing what is in front of us. Marton’s production invites us to think about the other moments in our lives when we suspend our disbelief. The success of certain pandering politicians makes me wonder whether it is, sadly, only on stage that the Orgons are outnumbered.

 

 

National Post:

Theatre Review: Soulpepper brings Tartuffe to life with extreme hilarity and superb ensemble work

It’s a production that had to happen. Two years ago, not too successfully, the same company and director gave us Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Royal Comedians, a play in which Molière himself is the beleaguered central figure. Much the brightest spots of that production were some interpolated scenes from Tartuffe in which Diego Matamoros played the titular hypocrite and Raquel Duffy the virtuous wife whom he tries to seduce and who turns a table on him by having her husband hide underneath it. One ached to see these actors reprise their roles in the original play, and now here they are. The new production takes off from its predecessor in other ways too. Bulgakov used the historical Molière and his ambiguous relationship with Louis XIV to reflect on his own position as a writer under Stalin. His was a modern play in 17th-century dress. It’s also a play about actors and acting. The new production starts with the wheeling-on of a costume-rack. The performers appear, and try on their period costumes, with every appearance of enjoyment. Then Matamoros and Oliver Dennis catch sight of one another’s grey curly wigs and get the giggles. They put the clothes back, and the other actors follow, as you might say, suit. This will be a 17th-century play in modern dress.

Or not quite. This is a play in which final disaster is averted by the personal intervention of that same King Louis, and you can’t modernize that without rewriting the script. The production, its end harking back to its beginning, has a trick up its sleeve for dealing with this. It doesn’t try to reconcile the periods; it lets them clash. It’s a rich mix.

So is what has gone before. The descendant of classic farce is situation comedy, and Tartuffe may be the greatest sitcom of all. It starts with members of a family yelling at one another. At least it does in most productions. In this one, far more unsettlingly, they argue quietly. Maybe too quietly; the production has one important flaw, which is that it slips too often into inaudibility. All the same, it’s so visually and emotionally clear that you can follow what’s going on even if you can’t quite hear it. In that opening scene the puritanical Madame Pernelle, played with ramrod intensity by Brenda Robins, is upbraiding her daughter-in-law and grandchildren for their loose freethinking ways, and specifically for their hatred of Tartuffe, the avowedly self-mortifying preacher whom her besotted son Orgon, head of the house, has installed as a permanent guest of honour. Dennis plays Orgon, initially, as a gentle, reasonable man: maybe too reasonable; he tries to inject variations into Orgon’s repeated inquiries about Tartuffe’s well-being, whereas the joke is surely in their uniformity. Elsewhere though he never puts a foot wrong. Towards his daughter Mariane, he’s the most playfully affectionate of fathers, until she recoils in horror from his demand that she marry Tartuffe, at which point he becomes a neurotic tyrant of terrifying proportions. He’s frightening in a different way after he learns the truth and realizes the mortal danger in which he has put himself. I have never felt as concerned for Orgon as in this performance.

Meanwhile we have been able to revel in the self-immolating torments of Katherine Gautier’s Mariane (self-immolation seems to run in the family) and of Gordon Hecht as her lover Valere, their competing transports of enforced nobility surveyed with a delicious mixture of relish and exasperation by Oyin Olajedo as the maid Dorine, the real power of the household. The physical comedy is hilariously extreme (or extremely hilarious) but there’s nothing in it that doesn’t spring from the text; the rhyming couplets of Richard Wilbur’s translation are handled throughout with exemplary intelligence and enjoyment. (Wilbur’s have now been the standard Molière versions for fifty years: an unparalleled record.) The ensemble work here is superb, from Duffy’s sensuous and sensible wife Elmire and Gregory Prest’s Cleante, the reasonable man perpetually baffled by unreason, through Colin Palangio’s hotheaded son and William Webster’s obsequiously threatening bailiff, down to the silent servants of Mikaela Davies and Frank Cox-O’Connell. The latter plays Tartuffe’s own man, insolently stuffing his pockets with wine while his master prefers the more discreet method of imbibing copiously at table. It seems appropriate that it’s the same table that will later prove his undoing.

Matamoros’ Tartuffe embodies both the production’s boldness and its subtlety. The odd thing about this legendary hypocrite is that, statistically, he isn’t very good at it; nearly everybody in the play sees through him. It only takes one victim; as, with real-life religious or other frauds, it need only take a few. Matamoros’ facade of humility never slips; even when apparently unmasked he maintains the tones of outraged virtue, still without raising his voice. When really exposed he, like Iago, shuts up. Maybe there’s a vein of self-hatred there; maybe he really believes in himself, the deceiver self-deceived. The holy man can assume decidedly unholy positions. In his first attempt at seduction he lies on the floor, balancing himself invitingly on hands and knees; at his second, he strips almost completely off. It’s not unlike the physical extremes that the same actor and the same director have found in Chekhov, another tragic farceur.

This is not, perhaps, so much a modern-dress presentation as one reduced to basics. Lorenzo Savoini’s set is a bare assemblage of walls, doors, and strictly necessary furniture, providing ample and often unexpected places for eavesdropping. Spare as it is, it can still be rather literally deconstructed, providing the starkest of final environments. The play’s happy ending is an avowedly artificial one; and though the shell-shocked characters would like to believe it, they obviously can’t. Disillusion and reconciliation hang in the air, not cancelling one another out but mutually enriching. This is a great production.

„Venue Young Centre for the Performing Arts City Torontoqq Year 2014 Runs Until Saturday, September 20, 2014 Two years ago, Hungarian director László Marton came to Toronto’s Soulpepper to direct Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Royal Comedian, (also known as A Cabal of Hypocrites), a play about French playwright Molière’s run-in with his royal patron, Louis XIV, and the archbishop of Paris after his comedy Tartuffe premiered in 1664 The best scenes in that production, it was generally agreed, were those where we glimpsed Molière’s plays within Bulgakov’s play. Most delectable was Marton’s metatheatrical staging of the famous seduction scene from Tartuffe – with Diego Matamoros playing Molière playing the religious hypocrite Tartuffe, trying to seduce Raquel Duffy playing the actress Madeleine Béjart playing Elmire, atop a table concealing her husband.

Flash forward to this summer, and Marton is, as many of us who were in the audience of The Royal Comedians wished, directing Tartuffe at Soulpepper. And we get to see that scene play out, with the same casting, in the context of a full production.

Did we wish wisely? In fact, this entire Tartuffe is even better than hoped for: It’s Marton’s best work for Soulpepper since his take on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in 2005, and one of the funniest productions of a Molière play on an English-Canadian stage in a long while.

While it may have angered the archbishop in the 17th century, Tartuffe no longer registers as particularly impious in the age of raging atheists such as Richard Dawkins and, rest in peace, Christopher Hitchens. Anything even hovering on the edge of sacrilegious is immediately explained and apologized for in Molière’s brilliant but ultimately obsequious play.

Tartuffe (Matamoros at his most voracious) is actually a straightforward con man who inspires Orgon (Oliver Dennis at his stubborn best) to hand over his property and his daughter to him with displays of false piety. Everyone else in his family can see through his ruse, however, even the maid Dorine (a wonderful Oyin Oladejo).

Marton has found in Tartuffe, then, a more enduring theme: that of our general propensity to be taken in by beautiful performances, even and perhaps especially when it is very clear that they are lies. The director emphasizes this by beginning his production with the set facing away from the audience, and with Soulpepper’s actors coming onto the stage to get into their costumes in front of us. (They first put on 17th-century wigs and robes, then remove them and opt for modern dress.)

American poet Richard Wilbur’s classic 1963 translation, which skillfully reduces the rich French sauce of Molière’s alexandrines into the thick English glaze of iambic pentameter, is used throughout, but the actors only rarely let themselves be tethered to rhythm or rhyme. Instead, they speak the lines as naturalistically as possible, often very quietly and sometimes at a whisper.

The occasional inaudibility of this enraged one audience member two rows behind me (she cried out “Jesus Christ!” at intermission), but it is another example of the creative conflict between reality and illusion in this production. Another effect of such theatrical sacrilege is to turn the audience into eavesdroppers – an appropriate posture in a play where the characters are always listening behind doors, in closets and, most famously, under tables.

Indeed, that scene where Tartuffe’s true nature is revealed to Orgon as the hypocrite tries to seduce Elmire on top of a table is worth the two-year wait. Diego Matamoros plays the title character as a man whose appetites are the only true aspect of his nature. Right before intermission, he devours a giant bunch of grapes in front of the audience, juice running down his face and body, and when he finally gets Orgon’s wife Elmire (Duffy) alone on the table, he threatens to devour her, too. It’s raunchy – not an adjective normally applied to Molière – and there’s even the suggestion in Duffy’s performance that Elmire may actually find Tartuffe’s hunger appealing, adding sizzle to scenes normally presented prudishly.

Tartuffe’s younger cast members, pulled from the Soulpepper Academy, are generally up to the level of the company regulars. There are a couple of fine discoveries here – notably Colin Palangio as Orgon’s hot-headed son Damis, and Gordon Hecht as the dorkily ineffectual suitor Valère. As Tartuffe’s silent sidekick, Frank Cox-O’Connell manages to score one of the evening’s biggest laughs with a sly smile.

It’s not all laughter, either. Marton dangles the possibility of tragedy before us at the end. It’s translator Wilbur who noted that Orgon’s betrayal of his family creates an atmosphere that is “the comic equivalent of King Lear’s.” And you feel that here, until all is corrected in a daffy deus ex machina that has rarely been more pleasurable in its absurdity.

Usually when watching Tartuffe, it’s easy to think of Orgon as merely stupid for not seeing what is in front of him. But as audience members, we are always seeing and not seeing what is in front of us. Marton’s production invites us to think about the other moments in our lives when we suspend our disbelief. The success of certain pandering politicians makes me wonder whether it is, sadly, only on stage that the Orgons are outnumbered.”

 

 

“Underneath the riotous comedy of Moliere’s 1664 play Tartuffe is a tough family drama examining ideas of trust, power, and hypocrisy. Soulpepper Theatre Company’s new production (on now through September 20th at the Young Centre) underlines these themes while providing plenty of laughs and a smart, contemporary take on a classic work.

Director Laszlo Marton opens the production with clothing racks full of seventeenth century costumes (and music to match), with members of the ensemble trying on outfits and playfully teasing one another. It’s an interestingly meta-theatrical moment that underlines the artifice (its appeal, its dangers) sitting at the heart of Moliere’s work. As actor and Soulpepper co-founder Diego Matamoros notes in the program notes, “All of the characters… are toying with their sense of theatre – their sense of playing a role to get what they desire.” Oscar Wilde may well have been speaking of Tartuffe in mind when he famously noted, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Indeed, the various masks the characters wear, with the main character (played here by Matamoros) wearing a mask of piety that fools Orgon (Oliver Dennis), reveals an uglier truth: the human propensity to be deceived most by that which we aspire to, by that which speaks to our deepest desires and unfulfilled longings. For him, Tartuffe (and his elaborate masquerade) ignites his feelings of male powerlessness, his longing for grace, and his desire to be viewed as righteous and, respectful, a man worth reckoning with. The main character, narcissistic, predatory, and calculating, who ensures, to borrow from Hamlet, his worshipper soaks up “his countenance, his rewards, his authorities.” At once funny and disturbing, the work tipped Moliere out of his popular position with both the court and the French aristocracy, who were offended by its ruthless portrayal (and mockery) of religion and power, and it was banned until 1669. The playwright died just four years later.

The story of Tartuffe is simple: Orgon is under the spell of the seemingly-religious title character, and has signed over his house and fortune. The gullible father plans on forcing a marriage between his daughter Mariane (Katherine Gauthier) and Tartuffe, even though she is already in love with Valere (Gordon Hecht). It’s only when Tartuffe attempts to seduce Orgon’s wife Elmire (Raquel Duffy) that Orgon sees his supposed friend’s hypocrisy, but by then it’s too late, as delicate, compromising political documents have been turned over to the King, and Orgon and his family are forced out of their home. Reprieve comes unexpectedly, and justice is swiftly meted.

„Director Marton strikes the thematic undertone of artifice repeatedly, with varied rhythm and volume, from the production’s opening scenes, where the audience sees the rough backs of the sets (later turned around to reveal plain white walls), to the way sumptuous fabrics are draped over plain, ugly pieces of furniture, and used to conceal, reveal, comfort, distort. Set designer Lorenzo Savoini plays with visual notions of the decadent and the debauched in clever ways, highlighting the work’s subtexts while illuminating individual character arcs and pushing the narrative ever forwards. The miniature carriage rolled out at the play’s end is a surreal bit of playfulness in keeping with the overall tone and feel Marton has set for the play, one that liberally mixes the strange and the strangely familiar. Setting the action in a non-descript place and time allows for Moliere’s rhyming couplet dialogue (expertly translated by Richard Wilbur) to shine especially brightly, with Gregory Prest (as good guy Cleante) and maid Dorine (Oyin Oladejo) offering especially clear, contemporary readings and striking performances. The rest of the cast is just as endearing, with Duffy’s elegant, smart portrayal of Elmire providing a striking contrast to Colin Palangio’s angry, vitriolic Damis, son of Orgon, whose frustration with his father’s blindness turns itself inside out in realizing the extent of that blindness.

As the title character, Matamoros offers a scintillatingly slimy portrait; his Tartuffe is equal parts pious, piggish, and pernicious, with a barely-concealed cruelty. One half-expects to see scales on his back when he rips off his shirt to seduce Elmire. His is not a lovable rogue but a villainous narcissist, and somehow, his ending feels unsatisfying, too easy, too pat. We are as dazed as Orgon’s family at the play’s end, when they look upwards, amidst the chunky gold flakes falling from above, wondering at the nature of glitter and artifice, stunned at our propensity to be fooled, flattered, lied to, and deceived. Moliere’s work isn’t solely a funny aside, but a harsh examination of human nature in relation to power and authority in both micro and macro ways. Thanks to Marton’s smart production, we’re able to laugh as well as reflect on our own Tartuffes, the inner ones and the outer ones, those Tartuffes that are obvious, but more importantly, those that are sly, stealthy, and silent. What will we do? Can we live without the mask? Should we? Tartuffe lets you decide, with a smile and a wink.”

by Catherine Kustanczy

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