TDPS Puts A Colorful, Superficial Spin on Tartuffe

Tartuffe (Shea Nolan) takes a moment to pray. Photo: Natalia Perez

Tartuffe (Shea Nolan) takes a moment to pray. Photo: Natalia Perez

Tartuffe doesn’t have to try hard to feel relevant to our present day. Molière’s 1664 comedy centers around a household in which truth is subjective, authority is deceptive, and actions are guided by dogmatic devotion: all themes that, in our current political moment, are sure to ring at least a few bells. 

That’s why it’s puzzling that TDPS’s production of Tartuffe strains so conspicuously to seem superficially relevant. In this iteration, it’s made abundantly clear that the characters – Orgon and company – are just like us. They root for the Lakers, call Ubers, and party to EDM. Heck, they even have an Alexa! The Amazon virtual assistant looms in the corner of the family’s yard, obeying their commands to turn off the television and play their sexy playlists.

Some of these updates work better than others. Alexa’s addition, for example, is a genuinely creative and even innovative touch. Her presence (if you can pardon my anthropomorphism) is underutilized, but beautifully integrated and deeply thought-provoking. Alexa surely is, a character herself, delivering not only the pre-show announcements but also injecting herself into characters’ interactions.

With the show set in present-day Los Angeles, there are also script updates that more firmly orient us temporally and spatially. The role of the King is changed to the Governor. The bailiffs come from nearby Pasadena. Cléante namedrops Cesar Chavez and Mr. Rogers. These are welcome, clever, and amusing changes to a 350-year-old play.

Other modern-day additions don’t work as well. Valère, for example, rides to and from the house on an electric scooter that feels extraneous. Tartuffe’s henchmen film a downstairs confrontation on their iPhones for no other apparent purpose than to remind us that it’s 2018.

 

But if we treat the play’s modern setting as symbolic of the story’s timelessness, it gets a whole lot more fun.

Tartuffe is mostly a comedy in the strict, historical definition of the genre: it has a happy ending that involves a marriage. But some incredible, zany performances thrust Molière’s rhymed verse into the modern age, tapping into some downright delightful humor.

As the titular conman, Shea Nolan is particularly great. A cross between Michael Ian Black and Cole Escola, Nolan gives a splashy, confident comedic performance accented with brilliant moments of physical comedy.

We catch our first glimpse Nolan’s Tartuffe as a mere shadow behind a window, self-flagellating in the upstairs bedroom while a wild, colorful EDM party rages on in the backyard. Other characters spend a good time talking him up, conjuring an image of an all-powerful religious leader in our minds before we actually meet the man behind the enigma.

Once we do meet Tartuffe, he reveals himself to be less than messianic. He’s just an obnoxious horndog, hiding his hedonism behind religious conviction. Nolan, a gifted physical comedian, does a fantastic job bringing Tartuffe to life, crawling on all fours and swaying his hips in tiny red briefs. He sips on drinks with tiny green umbrellas in them and moves his lithe little body with infectious zeal; Nolan brings so much life to what could easily be a musty old script.

There are other wonderful performances as well. There’s Drew Woodson as Orgon, the hippy-dippy patriarch who falls under Tartuffe’s spell. He brings a convincing and amusing obliviousness to the part, so much that our frustration with Orgon doesn’t turn us against him completely.

Claire Pearson’s snarky Dorine is also particularly excellent, bringing confidence and sass and savvy to the role. She’s mature and wise, possessing a savvy that everyone else in the family aggravatingly lacks. Pearson plays the part with effective gravitas, commanding every scene and make it easy to trust her authority.  

 

In terms of its design, Tartuffe may be one of TDPS’s most impressive achievements. The set is nothing less than stunning. It’s authentic and austere, a perfect rendering of the modern two-story homes that litter the Hollywood Hills. Technology is seamlessly integrated into the set – Alexa and a flat screen television respond to remotes and voice commands with stunning precision.  

The costumes are also a marvel. Lush fabrics, bright colors, and gorgeous patterns make each character come alive, bringing a fresh funkiness to the play’s aesthetic. The costumes in themselves are deeply memorable and truly unique—I’m still thinking about Damis’s floral pants several days later! And although the costumes sometimes rip us from the intended time period (the maid Mariane, for example, wears a French maid costume—something maids in LA today likely don’t wear around the house), their creative and singular design makes up for it.

Tartuffe in itself can be frustrating—it’s fundamentally a story about immature people butting heads and being stubborn. Even its ending, a classic deus ex machina, is annoyingly unearned. But none of that is the fault of this production. And while director Domenique Lozano doesn’t quite manage to thrust Tartuffe into the modern world, she succeeds in crafting an engaging and innovative theatrical experience. Beautifully integrated technology, excellent performances, and truly extraordinary design distinguish this iteration of Tartuffe as an enjoyable theatrical experience.

I do wish less attention had been paid to the appearance of modern relevance – iPhones, scooters, Alexa – and more paid to the deep thematic relevance of the work, like its direct parallels to our Post-Truth era and the MeToo movement. Instead, this rendition of Tartuffe is an amusing, colorful comedy when it could have been so much more.

Sophia Stewart