By Daniel Skora
“Tartuffe”, by French playwright and actor Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Moliere, as he was known by his stage name), is a classic of world literature. The comedy has a long and cherished history dating back to its first performance at the Versailles in 1664. It deals with Tartuffe, a man with religious pretentions who has used his affected piety to finagle his way into the household of Orgon, a wealthy man. The play is currently in the midst of a four week run at The Slipstream Theatre initiative, performed with the kind of contemporary tweaks that the Slipstream is so good at imbuing their productions with.
It should be noted that Moliere was also an accomplished poet and “Tartuffe” was written in verse. Every line of the play’s original script is twelve syllables in length, with the final word of one line forming a rhyming couplet with the final word in the next. The English translation used by the Slipstream was done in the 18th century, and though it’s written in prose, its language and sentence structure give this “Tartuffe” the sound of Shakespearean play. That, combined with the fact that the dialogue is generally delivered at a pretty quick pace, it’s doubtful that anyone in the audience will be able to process every line spoken in the play.
The good news, the great news actually, is that the Slipstream’s production of “Tartuffe” is one exceedingly funny play. It’s sophisticated, exciting, and enjoyable from start to finish. And that’s not even mentioning the risqué business that always seems to occur when a faux holy man finds himself in the company of some beautiful young ladies.
One of the Slipstream’s tweaks is setting the play in the formative years of the City of Detroit. The French names in Moliere’s play have been replaced with names of persons who way back when were prominent in Detroit and later came to have streets named after them, like Campau and De Quindre and John R. In terms of its effect on the play, however, it seems like an unnecessary conceit, neither adding to nor detracting from the main purpose of Moliere’s creation.
The success of Slipstream’s production owes much to its talented cast, a blend of Slipstream regulars and some new to the theatre’s stage. Jos. Campau/Orgon (Dan Johnson) is so impressed with the religious fervor of Tartuffe (Jay Jollijje) that he’s brought him into his home to serve as a kind of spiritual presence. Only his mother (Nancy Dawdry Penvose) shares her son’s enthusiasm for Tartuffe. Others in the family see him for the charlatan he is. They include Campau’s wife (Luna Alexander), his daughter Catherine (Grace Jolliffe), Campau’s nephew John R (Bailey Boudreau), Campau’s sister Marie-Cecilia (Victoria Rose Weatherspoon), the maid Doreen (Rachel Biber), and Catherine’s fiancée Frances Palms (Maxim Vinogradov). When it becomes obvious that Campau is planning to rescind the engagement of his daughter and betroth her to Tartuffe instead, a plan is hatched involving a seduction that’s meant to expose the untoward intentions of the counterfeit clergyman. How that plan plays out is one of the funniest scenes you are likely to see in any show this theatre season.
“Tartuffe” marks the directing debut for Mandy Logsdon and she does a marvelous job keeping the goings-on as understandable as possible. Don’t worry if you miss a line or two. The posture of the actors and the expressions on their faces will help fill in anything you might have missed in terms of dialogue. Other pluses in the show are its nicely executed physical humor and little touches like the peanut shells on the floor and the fetish doll of Tartuffe that gets bigger as Campau becomes more conjoined with Tartuffe. The show’s costumes, design by Tiaja Sabrie, have an early 19th century look and give the show a classical feel without having to resort to the hoop-skirted, powder-wigged extravagance of 17th century France. Assisting Ms. Logsdon as well as serving as stage manager is Meredith Deighton. Because playwrights hardly ever create characters of equal consequence, a special shout out has to be given to Alexander, Johnson, and Penvose for making their characters a special part of this wonderful production.
As always, Slipstream’s intimate performance area makes you feel like you’re part of the show. Running time for the production is under 90 minutes with no intermission. Tech director is Ryan Ernst.
“Tartuffe” runs through March 18th. Tickets are available online at slipstreamti.com, by calling the box office at 1.313.986.9156, or by emailing InsideTheSlipstream@gmail.com. The Slipstream Theatre is located at 460 Hilton Rd. in Ferndale.