While watching Slipstream Theatre Initiative’s zippy take on Moliere’s “Tartuffe” – the company’s adaptation runs a fleet 75 minutes – I noticed how much more angry and repulsed I felt while watching the titular con-man (Jay Jolliffe) press his unwanted advances on the lady of the house (played by Luna Alexander) than I had been when seeing previous productions of this classic.
Which is to say, I found myself suddenly having a #MeToo moment right there in Slipstream’s space in Ferndale.
But in this Weinstein age – when ugly, hard truths related to gendered power structures and cruel abuses are finally being brought to light – it’s hard not to start seeing everything through this highly charged lens.
And that kind of makes this a perfect (if complicated) moment for “Tartuffe.” The seventeenth century comedy – which employed physical humor and character types drawn from commedia dell’arte – tells the tale of a bloviating swindler and his mark (Dan Johnson), who becomes so blinded by worship that he signs over his possessions and invites Tartuffe into his home to stay. Everyone else in the family sees through Tartuffe’s false piety, but to convince the utterly smitten patriarch, the family must plot a way for him to witness Tartuffe’s hypocrisy for himself.
In addition to liberal editing (of an English translation that’s not in rhymed couplets), Slipstream also re-makes “Tartuffe” in its own image by exchanging nearly all of its familiar cast of character names for figures from Detroit’s history. Orgon (Johnson) becomes Joseph Campau; his wife Elmire (Luna Alexander) is now Adelaide DeQuindre; his sister Cleante (Victoria Rose Weatherspoon) is re-named Marie-Cecilla Campau; his nephew Damis (Bailey Boudreau) becomes hatchet-happy John R. Williams; his young daughter (Grace Jolliffe) is Catherine Campau, and her fiancee Valere (Maxim Vinogradov) is Frances Palms. Nancy Dawdry Penvose plays multiple roles (including Joseph’s stuffy, equally hoodwinked mother, Catherine Menard, Simon Girty, and Louis Groesbeck), and while the play’s wily servant Dorine (Rachel Biber) gets to keep her name, she’s repeatedly called Alexa – for contemporary joke reasons, of course.
This mild bit of Detroit-ification is so subtle as to be hardly noticeable, since the real star of the show is the story that unfolds. Mandy Logsdon directs “Tartuffe” with an eye toward giving us something lively to watch as we hear various characters’ speeches. Occasionally, this starts to feel labored and overdone, to the point where it’s hard to glean what’s being said – Alexander’s frenetic, claustrophobic fleeing while being ardently pursued by Jay Jolliffe, for example, and Penvose’s sustained physical comedy bit while having to unload a lot of info (while playing Groesbeck) near the play’s end, to name two examples – but generally, the production’s fueled by an appealingly fun sense of energy, supplied by its game cast.
Alexander always commands the stage with an assured ease, and “Tartuffe” is no exception. As the frustrated, eye-rolling wife of a man who refuses to see the truth, even when it’s reported to him by a witness, Alexander is singular in her ability to convey the layers of complex situation – such as when her character must pretend to invite Tartuffe’s sexual advances while also subtly thwarting them and angrily waiting for her husband to emerge from hiding. The young lovers, Grace Jolliffe and Vinogradov, imbue what are often predictable, throwaway roles with a quirky, endearing dose of real adolescent awkwardness. Biber, as the wily servant who knows more than everyone around her, does some actual clean-up – the bowl of peanuts on stage is more than just a prop – but more importantly, is our caustic, charming guide through the story. And Johnson, in a way, was born to play Orgon (or should I say, Joseph Campau?). Like a live wire, the actor all but audibly hums with quiet-but-deep-seated intensity. For this reason, his character’s all-consuming tunnel vision regarding Tartuffe’s virtue not only feels believable, but wholly natural.
Tiaja Sabrie’s era- and class-suggestive costumes help define each character’s personality (and Sabrie clearly had the most fun when dressing Penvose’s three exaggerated minor characters); and Ryan Ernst’s technical direction yields a set that’s makes Slipstream’s small, unconventional space look and feel more like a well-to-do family’s home.
And what of my #MeToo moment during the show?
While celebrity predators and harassers have made it considerably harder for us to simply sit back and laugh at these all-too-familiar situations in classic works, I nonetheless find myself feeling grateful for that. To me, it’s worth losing a few potential chuckles to have us all armed with a sustained awareness of gender power dynamics at work, both in art and in life. And because Slipstream’s big-picture aim is to revisit classic plays and make them feel fresh and relevant to modern (and often young) audiences, it’s hard to imagine a better candidate right now for this than “Tartuffe.” Though Weinstein’s (and CK’s, Spacey’s, etc.) crimes probably hadn’t been exposed when STI chose the play for its season, they haunt the show – and consequently, it’s hard not to feel a more pronounced wave of satisfaction when Tartuffe is finally exposed and brought to justice.
“Tartuffe” continues at Slipstream Theatre Initiative through March 18. For showtime and ticket information, visit http://www.slipstreamti.com/.
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