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Review: Tartuffe delivers shameless, unstoppable comedy at Stratford Festival

Tom Rooney as Tartuffe in Tartuffe.

Cylla von Tiedemann

4 out of 4 stars

Title
Tartuffe
Written by
Molière
Directed by
Chris Abraham
Actors
Tom Rooney
Venue
Stratford Festival
City
Stratford, Ont.

Are you in need of a good laugh right now? Of course you are – and, judging by how director Chris Abraham's new production of Tartuffe at the Stratford Festival has them LOL-ing in the aisles, you're not alone.

With priceless, but not at all precious comic performances from Graham Abbey, Tom Rooney and Anusree Roy, this modern update of Molière's great 1664 comedy about the hypocritical and the gullible is just the crowd-pleasing, word-of-mouth hit that Stratford needed to arrive on its main stage in the later months of a season that the local shopkeepers and restaurateurs tell me has been sluggish sales-wise.

Stratford has broken with tradition by choosing a new translation by Ranjit Bolt – which was first written for Britain's National Theatre in 2002 and has been reworked several times since.

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This Tartuffe retains the characters, plot and structure of the original comedy – which concerns a bourgeois war hero named Orgon (Abbey) who falls under the spell of a pseudo-Christian con man named Tartuffe (Rooney), despite the protestations of his family and his mouthy maid Dorine (Roy).

But Bolt has slipped in references to hard drives and sexting and a few choice curse words that situate us in the modern day, as does Julie Fox's ultra-slick set complete with a functioning espresso machine and high-end juicer.

And director Abraham has made a few even more up-to-the-minute changes to Bolt's script with his blessing that, once it all comes into focus in the final scene, suggest that perhaps this Tartuffe takes place not in the present day, but the near future.

This clever conceit makes, for instance, Orgon's ability to insist his daughter Mariane (notable newcomer Mercedes Morris) marry Tartuffe seem dystopian, rather than anachronistic. (Indeed, we might even be in a comic Parisian prequel to the The Haidmaid's Tale.)

Equally notable about Bolt's translation is its form. Molière wrote Tartuffe in alexandrines, rhyming twelve-syllable lines – and most English-language productions, including all of Stratford's to date, have employed a 1963 version by Richard Wilbur, a classic in its own right, that translated the play into iambic pentameter.

Bolt, however, has distilled Molière's lines down even further, into rhyming, eight-syllable lines – a rare form of verse known as trochaic octameter. (Think Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven.)

It's a genius idea: Though the Bolt lines are two-thirds the length of Molière's, they feel like they're in the same time signature – French triplets transformed into English eighth notes. What is lost in poetry is made up for in snappiness and, for once, the listener never gets ahead of the jokes.

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Hence the hilarity of this version – in part, anyway. Stratford has a long history of staging Tartuffe (with the likes of Brian Bedford and William Hutt in the title role), but I doubt any of the illustrious casts in the past had comic chops that surpassed this one.

Molière's play, misplayed, can turn into a waiting game for Tartuffe – who only shows up in the third act. But Abraham's production is rollicking from the very first scene, in which Orgon's mother (Rosemary Dunsmore) berates her extended family for their lack of piety. Dunsmore tears up the stage as this character that is usually long forgotten by curtain call.

As the maid Dorine, Roy picks up the baton and runs with it. Abraham has created the context for this talented actress and playwright to bring her own flavour of comedy familiar from her own plays to the role. Her constant undermining of Abbey's Orgon is hilarious – and her asides to the audience during attempts to restrain herself from doing so even more so.

Abbey's Orgon, seething with frustration, is an equal partner in the success of those scenes. This character is often portrayed as a rather sexless older man – but Abbey gives us a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis and is believable as a one-time warrior, now struggling to find inner peace after the battles are over.

Religious sentiments aside, you might very well sympathize with Orgon's anti-materialism – at least, in his dislike of his children's addiction to their smartphones. (He keeps a basket by the front door to contain them.)

Once Rooney arrives as the titular con man – playing him as an Eastern European immigrant, an interpretation that eventually adds a sharp edge to the ending – the play's comic momentum is unstoppable. This is a restrained performance by Rooney's standards, characterized by the slow, methodical popping of breath mints, but the slow burn pays off in spades during his seduction of Orgon's wife, played by Maev Beaty, one for the books.

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Abraham is perhaps shameless in padding the show's physical comedy, but then we live in a shameless age. I've seen a string of top-notch productions of Molière's once-banned comedy in recent years – some more refined, others more radically deconstructed – but I've never seen a funnier Tartuffe than this one.

Tartuffe (stratfest.com) continues to October 13.

Video: Stratford play looks at 500 years of Indigenous history (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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