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Monday, 29 November 1999 18:00

Tartuffe

Written by Daniel Higgins
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The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University

November 14 through 18, 2007
Reviewed by Daniel Higgins
Molière's Tartuffe is one of the classics of stage literature, and one of most enduringly comic of all plays. For as long as the human race continues to produce con men and marks, and for as long as religious establishments continues to produce frauds and sheep, there will always be relevance to this text, and it will always be funny.

The subject matter and satiric approach have offended fools and delighted the rest of the theatergoing public for three hundred and fifty years, and the play was once condemned by the church, a badge of high honor for quality literature. Even in mediocre productions, there survives a spirit that makes it nearly impossible for it to fail.

The November production of Tartuffe at the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University under the direction of Jane Page is reset to present-day Texas. Overstated interpretation and visual humor lend the production a broad sort of energy, and the production as a whole is lightly entertaining. The actors all give good performances within the context of what the director has envisioned. All of the dialect work is competent, though some cast members employ a kind of generalized southern accent rather than a specifically Texan drawl (I don't recall the last time I saw a play in which every actor speaks in a southern accent throughout, but I noticed this time that it does begin to grate after a while). The stylized approach to character is not disagreeable in itself, and these young professionals do it with verve. The resetting, though, inevitably introduces some cognitive dissonances: it's nice to be able to exploit the fact that the names "Dorine" and "Mariane" can be made to sound a lot like "Doreen" and "Mary-Ann," but it's done at the cost of having people who are supposed to be Texans occasionally addressing one another as "monsieur." In present-day Texas, how can a house servant such as Dorine not be a Mexican illegal immigrant? Nearly seven years of being governed by Texans has taught us to think of the state's wealthy as fools and villains, but the vast majority of the people in this play are neither -- there is just one fool, one old bigot, and one villain out of a total of twelve. Whatever political intent there may be in having the object of Cléante's diatribe against religious fakery be Texan, it's rather undermined by its being being spoken by a Texan, and further, by having Tartuffe's victims also be Texans. On the whole, this resetting doesn't ring quite true. There may be something to be learned from observing that the three most successfully funny moments are when a Texas lone-star emblem is revealed as a chair is overturned, when a pair of brightly-colored boxer shorts with smiley faces on them is revealed, and a character's appearance in a Batman costume. Perhaps the moral is that if an audience is entertained more by those things more than by any of the characters, situations, or individual lines that Molière wrote, the production has taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Commenting more generally here, I'll venture the notion that every updated production of a classic play in an educational setting represents a missed opportunity. Period productions seem to have been largely overlooked at acting schools across the country for a generation or more, judging from the number of times I've seen trained professionals tripping over period costumes on those occasions when they're used. Sure, period costume is expensive. That's all the more reason to see to it that actors are trained to cope with it when it is used.

The cast includes Nathan Lee Burkart, Justin D. Cook, Alexis Morgan Field, Matthew Russell Folsom, Cesar Garcia, Corinne Germaine, Israel Gutierrez, Abby E. Haug, Charles Sidney Hirsh, Corley Pillsbury, Ian Way, and Maggie Wetzel. The new adaptation by Constance Congdon, done in rhymed couplets, appears to be no improvement upon Richard Wilbur's excellent 1963 version. There's nothing obviously inferior about it, but it doesn't seem upon first acquaintance to have quite the liveliness one expects from Molière. The director's vision was very ably served by the student designers and production staff: Shelley Carter, Hans Fredrickson, Bri Harnden, Mark Hueske, Chelsae Ritter-Soronen, and Zena Rae Yeatman. In a university setting, the erroneous use of the accent aigu in the program's spelling of the playwright's name looks embarrassingly careless.

By the time this review appears at the KDHX website, the production will have closed, but upcoming productions at the Conservatory include The Spitfire Grill, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Angels in America, Part I, and Oklahoma! 

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