The original 1978 Broadway production of the comedy thriller Deathtrap by Rosemary’s Baby horror novelist-turned-dramatist Ira Levin centers around Sidney Bruhl, an acclaimed writer of Broadway comedy thrillers whose well of inspiration has apparently run dry … until a gifted student of his named Clifford Anderson pens a script for a class assignment that Bruhl recognizes as a surefire hit, in need of only a few minor tweaks. The question now is, will Sydney steal the play from Clifford? “Is it really that good?” asks Sydney’s wife, Myra. He quips, “I’ll tell you how good it is. Even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.”
That quote came to mind last Saturday night while I was watching the hash that first-time PlayMakers Repertory Company guest director Saheem Ali made of the regional premiere of David Ball’s new English adaptation of celebrated 17th century French playwright Molière’s incendiary 1664 comedy that pricked the pious pretensions of religious hypocrites, Tartuffe, which PRC is performing in repertory with The Christians by 2017 Tony Award® nominated playwright Lucas Hnath, tonight through Sunday, March 11th, in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art.
Saheem Ali employs color-blind casting and inserts some songs sung in French during some eyebrow-raising song-and-dance numbers, which don’t heighten the hilarity of the show one whit. Do the song lyrics underscore the show’s themes? Who knows? Their English translations are nowhere to be found — in the program or on the PlayMakers Rep website. It is a puzzlement.
But what I don’t understand is not my main problem with this production. Poor diction and/or poor projection and some cast members’ emotional excesses rendered much of the script unintelligible. Is Durham, NC playwright David Ball’s adaptation of Tartuffe a Tartuffe for our time? Heck if I know!
PlayMakers Rep audience favorites Ray Dooley and especially Katherine Hunter-Williams were predictably delightful as Orgon, the fanatically religious head of a Paris household, father of Damis and Mariane, husband of Elmire, and willfully blind devotee to the phony pious fraud and scoundrel Tartuffe; and as Orgon’s mother, Damis and Mariane’s grandmother, and Tartuffe’s completely fooled number-one fan Madame Pernelle. Guest star Joey Collins does not quite generate the same candlepower as Tartuffe, a counterfeit Christian, hypocritical houseguest of Orgon, and shameless would-be seducer of his host’s wife, Elmire.
Sadly, there is little if any romantic chemistry between Dooley and guest star Nemuna Cessay, who plays Orgon’s beautiful, much-younger, more down-to-earth second wife Elmire. Ardor is also absent between April Mae Davis and Adam Poole, who portray Orgon’s lovelorn daughter Mariane and nimble-footed suitor Valère, who conduct their courtship mainly in several cheek-to-cheek dance numbers.
Mariane and Valère’s romance hits the Titanic-iceberg-sized rocks when Orgon decides to marry his only daughter to Tartuffe. The very idea causes Brandon Haynes, who plays Mariane’s brother Damis and who recognizes Tartuffe for the freeloader and fake that he is, to erupt, shouting in his father’s face and expressing his fury in a frantic series of … pushups! (WTF?) An indignant Orgon, who’s still drinking Tartuffe’s Kool-Aid by the gallon, peremptorily disinherits his upstart son and makes Tartuffe his heir.
Damis’ physical-fitness frenzy is not the most head-scratching directorial touch in this production. That honor goes to Rishan Dhamija’s portrayal of Orgon’s common-sensical brother-in-law Cléante — a voice of reason whom Orgon pointedly ignores — in a turban with stereotypical sing-songy Indian vocal mannerisms out of a third-rate racist 1950s British comedy routine. Also jarring is Shanelle Nicole Leonard’s impertinent portrayal of Orgon and Elmire’s sassy housemaid Dorine, who sees through Tartuffe’s schemes to bamboozle her master but who cannot convince Orgon that Tartuffe is a con man and a roué aiming to cuckold him. Just think George Jefferson’s maid, Florence Johnston, on steroids!
Kudos go to scenic designer Alexis Distler and costume designer Anne Kennedy for lovely set with a gleaming wooden floor and cross motifs, and an eye-catching array of costumes that dress the cast for the success that they never quite achieve dramatically. PlayMakers patrons rewarded the show with the usual standing ovation, but a goodly number of them were slower to rise than usual. A standing ovation truly is a gesture that should be reserved for only the very best shows, and this over-the-top version of Tartuffe is definitely not one of them.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 16th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article200442639.html; Feb. 14th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 3.5 of 5 stars): https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/a-weighty-main-course-and-a-fluffy-dessert-compose-a-two-pronged-treatise-on-christianity-the-christians-and-tartuffe/Content?oid=11553560 and Jan. 31st mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/tartuffe/Event?oid=5396644; Feb. 14th Raleigh, NC Talkin’ Broadway: Raleigh/Durham review by Garrett Southerland: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/rd/rd40.html; Feb. 5th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh “Photo Flash” by BWW News Desk: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/Photo-Flash-PlayMakers-Rep-Tackles-Molieres-TARTUFFE-20180205. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 2nd Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/02/molires-tartuffe-cheerfully-skewers-religious-hypocrisy-feb-3-march-11-at-playmakers-rep/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Molière’s TARTUFFE at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16; 2 p.m. Feb. 17; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20, 21, and 24; 2 p.m. Feb. 25, 7:30 p.m. March 1, 2, 6, 7, and 10; and 2 p.m. March 11 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.
2017-18 SEASON: https://playmakersrep.org/season/2017-2018-season/
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
WARNING: PlayMakers Rep recommends Tartuffe for audiences aged 14 and older.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 4: There will be FREE post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21st, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 25th, performances.
NOTE 5: The North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor a FREE post-show Mindplay psychoanalytic discussion on “The Charm of a Snake,” led by Theresa A. Yuschok, MD, after the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, March 11th, performances.
Tartuffe; or The Imposter, or The Hypocrite or Tartuffe; ou, l’imposteur (1664 French comedy): https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tartuffe (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartuffe (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: https://www.bard.org/study-guides/tartuffe-study-guide (Utah Shakespeare Festival).
Molière (French dramatist and actor, nee Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-73): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Moliere-French-dramatist (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/moliere/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moli%C3%A8re (Wikipedia).
Saheem Ali (New York City director): https://www.saheemali.com/ (official website), http://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/saheem-ali/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/48719 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/saheem-ali-489141 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://www.facebook.com/saheemscene (Facebook page).
Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail email@example.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)