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Sunday, 18 March 2012 17:43

'Tartuffe' clowns around

Written by Shahnaz Ahmed
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The Details

Jean-Baptiste Moliere's comedy Tartuffe was meant to be clever and funny, but even a classic script couldn't have saved UMSL's clownish adaptation of this play.

The play is essentially about Tartuffe (played by Michael Pierce) a religious con artist, misrepresenting and attaching himself to Orgon (played by Drew Anthony Pannebecker) and Madame Pernelle (played by Michelle Childs). Orgon, being head of household and being completely blinded by Tartuffe's character, wants to have his daughter Mariane (played by Joanna Woolens) marry Tartuffe. The plot moves towards exposing Tartuffe's character while Tartuffe tries to exploit Orgon's trust in him. The play is written in verse, but the script has been changed and modernized to include words like "F*&^" and "shut up" and to decrease running time. I understand that the Broadway version of this show ran two hours and 30 minutes long and hence I would have to assume the script has been modified significantly to make it run for a mere one hour 30 minutes with no intermission.

The play was performed in a commedia dell'arte style (channeled through Ringling Brothers) with Tartuffe wearing a mask and looking more like a clown. He had on a loose hat with a sunflower sticking out of it. Orgon wore a mask and a broad black and white striped suit that had elements of a circus as well. The outlandish costumes were more of a distraction than a supporting element to the play.

The play was performed as a broad farce-or so it seemed. All actors were trying to perform slapstick vaudeville-style comic routines. I might have smiled a couple of times and maybe chuckled a couple more, but that was all the reaction the entire play got out of me.

Direction by Tlaloc Rivas was good, but I don't feel the necessity to blame the bad acting on him.

I felt the actors tried too hard to make their characters and lines funny and somewhere in there the art of comedy was lost. Also, there was poor chemistry on stage all around. I must however give special mention to a couple of actors, however. Firstly, I must mention Drew (as Orgon). I thought he struck a good balance between character, acting and comedy, and I enjoyed watching his performance. His performance was very distinctly superior to the others.

My second mention goes to Michael (as Tartuffe). He had some excellent moments on stage and then there were times I wished for more. I felt he played the "good guy" well. He had good comic timing for that and his character was likable. When it came time to show his evil side, however, I felt he let me down. It was ultimately Drew that elevated the play to helped me empathize with Tartuffe and the other characters.

The set was simplistic. Lights and sounds were adequate. Set changes were simple as well, but fun to watch. The designated actors that had to change set, came on and while moving furniture expressed themselves through silent actions, where I felt they were pretending to fight over where they had to move the furniture or how or when to do it. I enjoyed it as much as (if not more than) the play itself.

The other elements that I enjoyed in this play, without trying to contradict myself, are the costumes. I loved Dorine's (played by Barbie Sutton) striped tights, Mariane's (played by Joanna Woolens) skirt, Tartuffe's ridiculous looking stomach pouch and suit, Damis' (played by Reese Walters) “high water” trousers, and I've mentioned Orgon's suit before. I still say the costumes distracted me from the play, but who cares, really? It was visually funny and made me feel like I was in a circus. It made me want to feel good and want to like the play because it made the statement that this play was supposed to be fun. I was in a circus.

For purposes of transparency, I must mention that I mistook the start time. I thought the play started at 8pm, when in fact it started at 7:30pm. Also, although I was there 15 minutes before 8pm, due to ticketing issues at their office, I didn't get to enter 'till 8pm. I missed the first 30 minutes, but I'm happy to say that I did immediately pick up on the plot, although I wasn't entranced instantly.

In conclusion, I will say that I will look forward to another production (by another theatre company) of "Tartuffe", because Moliere weaves a simplistic but very fun plot. However, I would not completely recommend this one. I must mention though that if you like slapstick stage comedy, you might enjoy this production. I enjoyed what I felt was a great potential for a play.

"Tartuffe" plays at the Touhill through March 24th.

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