“Charges which you now repudiate you may find credible at a later date.” No, this isn’t a comment on the 2016 presidential candidates – it’s a smirky statement by Tartuffe, the titular character in Moliere’s social satire. The University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies took an enlightening contemporary approach to this larger-than-life comedy about religion and social perception, and have produced a stunning production.
Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, this production of Moliere’s 350-year-old play is set “not too far in the future.” While everyone in Orgon’s household smells a rat, Orgon and his mother are enamored with their boarder Tartuffe (Patrick Joy), an “upstanding, devout man.” Orgon (Samy Selim) is so enamored, in fact, that he wants Tartuffe to marry his daughter Mariane (Daniela Gomes), instead of her true love Valère (Sebastian Rousseau). But Orgon’s son Damis (Montana Monardes) and his wife Elmire (Iliana Papanicolaou) want desperately to convince Orgon of Tartuffe’s real character.
Samy Selim was confident and strong in the role of Orgon, even when he was duped by Tartuffe, and Montana Monardes’ fervent desperation to convince his father was palpable. Orgon’s spunky, conniving maid Dorine (Ashley Pugmire) was a scene-stealer, always one step ahead of the action and ready with a wise comeback. Papanicolaou was stellar as Orgon’s wife, who put on the charm to seduce Tartuffe. Whitney Geohagan, playing Orgon’s mother Mme. Pernelle, had the physical mannerisms of an elderly woman down to a science, from the way she walked and stood to the way she commanded respect from her family. Despite the alexandrine dialogue, the actors all spoke fluidly and naturally.
In an effort to globalize the performance, Gardner incorporated several languages into the play. As the performers entered and exited the stage, they recited prayers from different languages and faiths. The director also chose to make Mariane’s character deaf, and she communicated with sign language and through an interpreter (Heather Gibson). It’s amazing how much Gomes was able to convey with a simple raise of the eyebrow or curl of the lip.
The beautiful set, designed by Halea Jo Coulter, blended the classical and the futuristic with art-deco touches. A maze of silver partitions added depth to the stage, and an iconic statue and globe chandelier were paramount to the classical beauty. The beige costumes, designed by Tyler Gunther, were an extremely pleasing mix of contemporary and classic. Even the hair shirts were attractive, with adornments of macramé and beads.
The contemporary setting reinforced the play’s enduring message, but I wonder if the play would feel just as powerful if it were performed as a period piece, evoking some of the original controversy that caused it to be censored when it was first released. The use of cell phones and modern shopping bags as props added nothing to the performance, and I would have liked to see a full commitment to a time period instead of setting the play in the nebulous “near future.”
But perhaps an ambiguous time period reminds us that the lessons Tartuffe teaches us are timeless. People aren’t always who we think they are, and living out one’s faith can be a more powerful example than spewing out dogma. These are surely lessons worth revisiting.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.
Tartuffe plays through November 14, 2015 at the Kogod Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland – the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 (University Boulevard). For tickets, call (301) 405-2787, or purchase them online.