The National Arts Centre’s English Theatre has always been a conundrum – it’s a theatre with a national mandate, but a regional audience, charged with putting on artistically ambitious works in a commercial-sized house. I don’t want to jump the gun, but new artistic director Jillian Keiley may have finally figured out how to solve the puzzle.
In the selection and shepherding of the first production of her tenure, the Newfoundlander has found a way to mix Canadian content into a classic and combine a populist aesthetic with a pluralist one. Oh, and make an Ottawa audience roar with laughter.
Tartuffe is Molière’s famous comedy about religious hypocrisy and, by some estimations, the most performed classical play in the French-speaking world. (You can hear echoes of it in Quebec’s debate over government employees wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols.) In his new adaptation, Andy Jones, one of the original of members of comedy troupe CODCO, has kept the characters, their French names and most of the structure, but transferred the action to pre-Confederation Newfoundland on the cusp of the Second World War.
Orgon (Joey Tremblay), a Great War hero and wealthy fish merchant, has fallen under the spell of an evangelical minister named Tartuffe (a sweaty and whispering Andy Jones). Having already given him much of his money, Orgon now outrages his family by promising Tartuffe his daughter, Mariane (Leah Doz), who was already engaged to Valere (David Coomber).
Orgon’s wife Elmire (Christine Brubaker) and the rest of his relatives see through the ostentatiously pious Tartuffe, who walks around with a little whip for self-flagellation, but it takes an intervention and much eavesdropping from inside closets and under tables to convince him that he’s been duped – at which point, it may be too late.
Jones’s version, which originated at New World Theatre Project in Cupids, Nfld., keeps the play in rhyming verse, although Molière’s elegant alexandrines are replaced with a meter that’s all over heck’s half acre. This unwieldiness is mostly made up for by a steady stream of b’ys and buddies and various colourful Newfoundland expressions both real and invented. The crafty, Catholic maid Dorine (an acidic Petrina Bromley) is particularly apt with a saucy sentence. “If he had a second brain, it’d be lonely,” she says in one of her more printable put-downs.
A favourite scene between the young lovers Mariane and Valere, where they stubbornly refuse to admit their passion for each other, seems written for the Rock. It’s a particular joy here thanks to Doz’s proud Mariane, constantly threatening suicide by grabbing scissors or filling her pockets with stones, and Coomber’s rubbery, recalcitrant Valere.
Neither of those two young actors are from Newfoundland, but they do a fair job of giving performances that appear as authentic as those of Bromley or Jones, who are. The National Arts Centre’s focus on having a company of actors for a whole season of shows, however, means that some of these Tartuffe characters sound more French-Canadian or Jamaican or, heaven forfend, Torontonian when they unleash pearls of wisdom such as: “It’s a short alley that has no piss-cans.” The double dislocation of the piece from Molière isn’t all that disorienting after a while, but it does mean some of the comedy misses the mark.
On the whole, though, the prewar period when Newfoundland had abandoned responsible government is a fine fit for a plot that hinges on tensions between religious and royal power. As it happens, King George VI visited the colony in 1939, a necessary condition for the Moliere’s famous deus ex machina that concludes.
There are more subtle added resonances too: Orgon, for instance, can often seem simply stupid, but, in Tremblay’s performance, his status as a veteran of the Great War gives the role greater depth. He lost an arm and, you gather, that’s not all. It explains his religiosity, his short temper – and, crucially, why his family is supportive and loving even as he gives away their future to a snake-oil salesman.