Jim Sontag, foreground, and Michelle Edwards star in Tartuffe.
It’s not very often you see two University of Montana drama students getting it on center stage in the Montana Theatre. Yet there they were, perched on a table: the title character of Jean-Baptiste Molière’s Tartuffe flexing his pelvis and his unwilling partner, Madame Pernelle, her knees spread exaggeratedly apart, going through the motions like teenagers in the back seat of a Chevy. As crass as the scene sounds, it was anything but. In fact, the humorous high jinx, played up with cartoonish actions and both actors fully clothed, acts as the comedic highpoint—the climax, if you will—of Molière’s classic farce.
Consider Molière something like a Benny Hill for 17th century France. His work, including such masterpieces as The Misanthrope and The Learned Ladies, earned him recognition as one of history’s greatest comedic writers, and his often-controversial scripts dripped with satire and sexual innuendo. The best example is Tartuffe, which was first performed in 1664 and features a supposedly born again do-gooder exposed as a conniving, panty chasing sleazeball. In it, Molièr uses promiscuity like a tool, bait that draws out a character’s true intentions—and also as a constant source of humor. Nearly every male character at one point finds himself distracted to the point of paralysis by the sight of a corset-enhanced bosom or a teasing advance. Suggestiveness rules, weakness is milked for laughs, and men rarely think with their brains. It’s no wonder King Louis XIV banned the play under pressure from the church shortly after its debut.
More than three centuries later Tartuffe still holds up. Translated into rhyming couplets by Richard Wilbur in 1977—it reads like a Dr. Seuss book—this version overcomes a painfully dense and slow beginning to find a consistently funny rhythm. The laughs may come cheaply, but as the play progresses they come in droves.
Maybe cheap isn’t the right word. But UM’s production is at its best when comedy’s most basic elements dominate. There are shots to the crotch, flamingly effeminate displays of chivalry and sight gags that look straight from an Enzyte male enhancement commercial. The sharp slapstick works throughout, whether it be a character running into a closet in an ill-fated attempt to escape while everyone waits patiently for him to realize, or the aforementioned seduction that includes a fair share of acrobatics. Director Noah Tuleja, a former drama faculty member specializing in stage combat, accentuates such physical comedy and does right by exploiting every possible opportunity for laughs.
There are exceptional moments from the cast, as well. Aside from an unintelligible police officer at the end, the actors deftly handle Wilbur’s tongue-twisting rhymes, delivering them as naturally as one could expect. Aaron Bartz is exceptional as Tartuffe, speaking in a sniveling whine and accenting his lines with a Penguin-like nasally groan; he seems precociously at ease with such a two-faced character. Martha Neslen saves the play’s otherwise untenable beginning as strong-willed servant Dorine, plotting behind the scenes to help unveil Tartuffe’s impurities. And the talented Tyler D. Nielson, who’s made a habit of stealing scenes in nearly every recent UM production, does so again as the ridiculously lovesick and elaborately fanciful Valère. His subtle interaction with Jackson Palmer’s Damis and Greta Weber’s Mariane garners laughs even when they’re not supposed to be the center of attention.
These fine performances come gift-wrapped in one of UM’s most thoroughly ornate costume designs, courtesy of Wendy Stark. Each vintage gown, robe, sash and wig is meticulously detailed and gorgeous, with small accents like royal purple bows adorning the men’s calves or matching decorative shoes as nice finishing touches. The minimalist set and lighting designs are less inspired, but you get the impression this show could only handle so much production before becoming more flashy than necessary.
Which gets back to why exactly this version of Tartuffe mostly succeeds. Molière’s original shrouded a commentary on the hypocrisies of the church in a silly comedy. It was as controversial for its damning message as its licentious content. But UM’s version doesn’t bother with underlining the morals. As Tuleja writes in his cutesy director’s note included in the program (the whole thing rhymes), this production has “no nobler purpose than to make you laugh!” By keeping the focus honed in on that singular goal and having the utmost fun with the material, Tuleja and company thrive.
Tartuffe continues at UM’s Montana Theatre inside the PARTV Center through Saturday, Dec. 1, and continues Tuesday, Dec. 4, through Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 PM. $15/$12 for students and seniors.