It’s fascinating to see how well Tartuffe adapts to the outport culture of Newfoundland. Or perhaps we should modify this and note that we’re talking about the particular outport culture that emerges from the impish mind of Andy Jones, a social satirist who knows his island well and remains ever alert to its possibilities when it comes to creating comic mayhem.
Indeed, Jones’s gleeful new version Moliere’s 350-year-old masterpiece, does have the rollicking cadences of a salt-water ballad — albeit an off-kilter one. And in Jillian Keiley’s spirited production for the NAC English theatre, it carries the tang of an irreverent tall tale about duplicity and gullibility on the Rock. It’s a testament to Keiley’s direction, to the work of the cast, and to designer Patrick Clark who has concocted a splendid two-level period set for the occasion, that for two-and-a-half hours you’re ready to engage in the fantasy that Moliere’s vision of human nature at its most preposterous actually did play out here, on this island, in the late spring of 1939.
It’s not surprising that Jones relished this challenge — given his past history with CODCO, a legendary comic troupe adept at skewering the sacred cows of the day. Despite his cheerfully shameless adaptation of Tartuffe, he is still delivering a 21st Century vindication of Moliere’s 17th Century scourging of society.
In his portrayal of Tartuffe, Jones may be all beatific smile and soothing voice, he may tremble with spiritual fervour, rather like a mound of aspic jelly, and project an aura of pious humility — but beneath this facade of religiosity we detect a fraud and a hypocrite, a lecher and a smarmy con artist who is ready to take the gullible fish merchant Orgon, who has invited Tartuffe into his home, for all he is worth and strip him of his wealth.
This in many ways is a low-key characterization, with Jones so anxious to show Tartuffe’s slyness and cunning that you’re left wondering sometimes about the personal charisma which surely must have been a factor in the duping of Orgon and other followers. The charisma isn’t really detectable, so Jones does short-change the role’s potential a bit, which is a pity. Nevertheless, what remains is an enjoyable, nuanced portrayal in which Tartuffe’s true calculating colours are allowed to seep through sufficiently to be spotted by any one with a clear head.
But, of course, one of the delights of the play is the frustration that those who do see through him experience in trying to convince Tartuffe’s fervent followers of his iniquities.
The most credulous of these followers is Orgon, Tartuffe’s host and victim, whose cement-brained obstinacy fuels Joey Tremblay’s hilarious portrayal of a hapless dupe ready to give all in return for his fraudulent pastor’s spiritual succour.
But as a counterweight to Orgon’s idiocy we do have more discerning members of the household, led by the witty and observant maid Dorine — a caustic delight thanks to the performance of Patrina Bromley. They do see through him and frantically try to persuade Tartuffe’s rosy-eyed disciples to wake up to his true nature.
This production, the first to feature NAC English theatre’s 2013-14 acting ensemble, reveals some solid talent and a welcome determination to offer character rather than caricature, which can sometimes be a daunting challenge with Moliere. So kudos to performers like the excellent Leah Doz as Orgon’s daughter, whose hysteria is understandable given that she faces the prospect of being married off to Tartuffe; Christine Brubaker, a continuing delight as Orgon’s wife Elmire, especially in those moments when Tartuffe tries to seduce her; and Dimitry Chepovetsky, a voice of reason, as her brother.
But there is an occasional lack of audibility despite the cast’s ease with the script’s rhyming couplets. It seems less a matter of projection than one of incomprehensibility: the result, one suspects, of inadequate enunciation and slurred dialogue exchanges.
Still one can’t quibble too much. Jillian Keiley’s production may have its own distinctive Newfoundland texture, but stylistically, given the vigour of its comic momentum, it also honours the sensibility of the Comedie-Francaise, the legendary company most associated with Moliere’s name.
By Molière, adapted by Andy Jones
Produced by the NAC English Theatre
At the NAC through Nov. 2 – Tickets: 613-236-7000
Director: Jillian Keiley
Set: Patrick Clark
Costumes: Marie Sharpe
Lighting: Rebecca Picherack
Musical Director: Doreen Taylor-Claxton
Movement Coach: Andy Massingham
Dialect Coach: Heather Hill
Co-Composer: Pamela Morgan
Stage Manager: Stefanie Seguin
Orgon: Joey Tremblay
Madame Pernelle: Quancetia Hamilton
Damis: Eric Davis
Mariana: Leah Doz
Dorine: Petrina Bromley
Flipote: Eliza-Jane Scott
Elmire: Christine Brubaker
Cleante: Dmitry Chepovetsky
Valere: David Coomber
Tartuffe: Andy Jones
Leander Loyal & Officer: Sheldon Elter