Any way you translate it, Triad Stage’s Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite is a riotous blast from the past. Who’d have thought a 300-year-old play, a French one at that, could feel so fresh and sharp? If you’re expecting a throwback to 17th century France, when the play was written, get over it. This is French playwright Molière, himself a 17th-century version of a stand-up comic, molded into Steve Martin.
Columbia University professor Curtis Hidden Page’s 1908 retooling of Tartuffe is outrageously updated to include text-messaging and boldly staged to underscore the sexual subtext by Triad Stage co-founder and artistic director Preston Lane. Lane pokes fun at all things French, not the least of which are the French: the drama trauma, the overly-romantic and, at the same time, cynical machinations, and — who knew? — the inability to master American slang.
Touché, M. Lane.
This story of a French family torn asunder by an ingenious con man is so believable, and, for anyone who has longed to laugh at the French and their famous arrogance, terribly cathartic.
A very Salvador Dali-looking Tartuffe, Gordon Joseph Weiss plays the mooching, oversexed, religious hypocrite who pulls the wool over the eyes of the rich patriarch Orgon, played by the wide-open John Robert Tillotson. Although these two are technically the main characters, they by no means steal the show, although they probably could have with a weaker troupe.
The rest of the cast is a spectacle of French personalities and, not to be overlooked, French fashion. Orgon’s aging mother, Madame Pernelle, played by Christine Morris, looks marvelously Chanel. Krista Hoeppner as Elmire, Orgon’s hot second wife, sports Mack and Mack. In a fashion class by herself is the all-knowing housemaid with the acerbic tongue, played to perfection by Rosie McGuire. McGuire is married to Tartuffe’s Weiss and last acted with him at Triad Stage in 2007’s Tobacco Road.
And then there’s the younger generation, including Orgon’s son, daughter, and her lover, played by University of North Carolina at Greensboro theater students. TJ Austin as son Damis is convincing as both devoted brother and Eurotrash. Also not to be missed are the French cops, dressed as only the French (with help from costume designer Kelsey Hunt) can dress them.
The beauty of this show is that every aspect can stand on its own: costumes, script, set, and acting. Put them together, and c’est fantastique.
Lane hits all the notes in the adaptation’s tricky dramatic milieu. The original play was rhymed verse, but thank goodness we’re spared from that until it’s absolutely necessary with the entrance of a member of the French royal family. Don’t ask. You have to be there. The scene is bold, but it works, and has an almost eerie way of transporting the audience back to the 17th century.
The set itself is masterful, and thanks to scenic designer Fred Kinney, a tribute to the professionalism that has made Triad Stage a standout in regional theater. If you’ve ever tried in vain to find a room with a view of the Eiffel Tower, look no further, although it might have been nice if the image of the Tower were un petit peu more modern. But it more than fills the bill for ambiance.
Our wacky family’s penthouse is right out of Elle Décor — black, white, and shades of gray with a touch of Corbusier thrown in for good measure. There’s the de rigueur chaise, which plays its own part as bed in the de rigueur make-out scene. You can’t have a French play without sex, silly.
And there’s a nod to French food with that infamous symbol (which fits this show perfectly), the baguette. We witness baguette as baton, barbell, billy club, and, of course, breakfast.
The soundtrack seems to be mostly modern French rock, but Edith Piaf fans will not be disappointed.
And finally, there is an old idea with a twist, or should we say, lift: elevator as stage, carried off in its own hilarious way in the production as actors, stagehands, and furniture enter and exit.
When the elevator closes on Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite, you’ll have even more respect for Molière, one of the world’s greatest playwrights. Likewise for Triad Stage.
Tartuffe runs through June 28th. See our theatre calendar for details.
Lynn Jessup, who lives in Greensboro, used every French word she knows in this review.