STRATFORD, Ont. — Let’s get down to the basics. The Stratford Festival’s new production of Moliere’s Tartuffe has company mainstay Graham Abbey delivering one of the best comic performances in this venerable theatre’s history. And no, he’s not playing the title character — he’s not the oily religious hypocrite and con-artist who ingratiates himself into a wealthy Parisian household and causes mayhem.
On the contrary, Abbey has the role of Orgon, the gullible head of the household and a man bewitched by Tartuffe’s bogus odour of sanctity. In Stratford’s current modern-dress rendition, Orgon is a creature of the new millennium — seeking to defy middle age by dashing up and downstairs like a gazelle, performing push-ups on the carpet and mixing himself power drinks. — and driving other members of his household nuts. Orgon is also volatile, mindless in his religious fervour and driven to absurd outbursts of wrath when others try to awaken to him to the fact that Tartuffe, the bogus ascetic who has taken control of his life, is a fraud and charlatan.
Abbey’s brilliant comic timing and quick responsiveness to the barbed humour of Ranjit Bolt’s rhyming-couplet translation delivers hilarity again and again. But it is also a study in character: this is a blockhead so blinkered and self-deceiving that not only is he prepared to give his daughter to Tartuffe in marriage but is ready to bequeath his fortune to him.
Rarely have stupidity and an underlying vulnerability been rendered so entertainingly. But there’s something else significant about Abbey’s performance. He’s brought Orgon back to centre stage where he belongs and in so doing has dealt with an imbalance in perception that many of us may have when it comes to this play. Stratford playgoers with long memories will recall that the late Brian Bedford triumphed twice in the role of Tartuffe at the festival, in productions directed by Richard Monette and John Hirsch. Bedford’s formidable stage presence and cunning comic gifts made Tartuffe the undeniable centrepiece of these two offerings — yet this is not the role that Moliere assigned himself when the play was produced in Paris more than 300 years ago. With his eye on the main chance, the playwright portrayed Orgon.
Stratford legend William Hutt played Tartuffe in two early productions, but in conversation many years later, he was remarkably clear-eyed about this character. For him, the production that mattered most came in the early 1970s when he was happy for his Tartuffe to yield to the comic brilliance of Douglas Rain’s Orgon.
So Graham Abbey’s Orgon is the best reason for seeing this show. It’s certainly not the Tartuffe of Tom Rooney who comes across as a creepy, lank-haired humbug, whose very piety smacks of the sinister and the fraudulent, but who offers not a smidgeon of the charisma that might entice Orgon into his grasp.
Rooney is a subtle actor, but from the moment he first creeps on stage, his performance seems almost too muted, too understated, to connect easily with Chris Abraham’s often raucous production. There are certainly nuggets of comic gold here — the moment when Tartuffe flagellates himself with a bouquet of flowers, the tinge of hypocrisy that surfaces when he demands that a woman cover herself up even as he lustfully gazes down at her breasts. But how easily can Rooney make this characterization track? That question certainly becomes pertinent by the time we’re treated to the spectacle of Tartuffe in his underpants. Does the moment make psychological sense or is it just the opportunity for a sight gag?
Chris Abraham is a nimble director with a weakness for the over-the-top moment. The sadness of the human comedy, an emotional thread underscoring even Moliere’s most biting plays, seems to matter less to him on this occasion than churning out outrageous bits of comic business — including one knockabout comic tussle that mockingly hints of homoeroticism.
But Abraham, with the astute support of designer Julie Fox, once again shows his mastery of the Festival Theatre stage. The production may seem wrong-headed at times but it does delight — and Abbey’s splendid contribution is not is not the only reason.
There’s Anusree Roy, an ongoing pleasure as Orgon’s outspoken servant, Dorine. There’s Rosemary Dunsmore as Orgon’s dragon of a mother, loyally defending Tartuffe with the ferocity of a flame thrower. There’s Michael Blake’s deft and enjoyable turn as Cleante, a street-smart guy who doesn’t refrain from telling his thick-headed brother-in-law, Orgon, that he’s an idiot. And there’s a wonderfully enigmatic Maeve Beaty as Orgon’s trophy wife, managing to convey an insinuating sexuality even as she’s staving off the hypocritical Tartuffe’s attempts at seduction.
(Tartuffe continues to August 13. Ticket information at 1 800 567 1600 or stratfordfestival.ca)