Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Translating "Tartuffe" at IWU

Molière's "Tartuffe" is a tough assignment for college theater. It's not just that it's farce. Or that it's French farce. Or that it's French farce from the 17th century. Or that it's French farce from the 17th century written in rhyming couples.

Okay, maybe it is the rhyming couplet thing.

Most translations of "Tartuffe" keep the couplets, including the one by Richard Wilbur, which is considered to be high on the list of top translations of Molière's work. But those couplets... Actors have a tendency to fall into a singsong rhythm, to sink into the rhymes, losing the sense of their lines. But without the rhymes, it doesn't feel like the complete Molière experience. And that's what makes it so tough to pull off.

What's it all about? As you might expect, it's about a man named Tartuffe, a greedy hypocrite pretending to lead others on the path to virtue while feathering his own nest at every opportunity. A wealthy man named Orgon is now buying whatever Tartuffe is selling, hook, line and sinker; he is so thoroughly smitten that he is willing to put Tartuffe before his lovely wife, Elmire, his children, and any semblance of good sense, no matter how much his family and his servants, including saucy maid Dorine, protest. Even though Tartuffe doesn't really hit the stage until almost an hour in, he is still the center of attention, as foolish Orgon refuses to see what a dupe he has become.

Illinois Wesleyan's current production of "Tartuffe," directed by Nancy Loitz, looks very good. Curtis Trout's elegant set is simple and smart, using pillars and a chair or two instead of the overdone Frenchified drawing rooms with ten or twelve doors and a million knickknacks you normally see when Molière is in play. Marcia K. McDonald's costume design is also smart, sticking to the period and identifying characters through color (Elmire sizzles in an orangey pink, while ingenue Mariane gets pale yellow) and level of frippery. I was a little surprised to see Tartuffe himself, the fake pinnacle of piety, not decked out in all black like the Puritan he pretends to be (or the one you see in IWU's poster shown below).

As played by Chase Miller, this Tartuffe looks pale and waifish, with long, lank hair and a pronounced limp. He's been described as red and round and rosy, but he is decidedly not. Miller gives his all to the role, but he looks more like the Aqualung cover than a 17th century religious leader.

Still, the audience on opening night was very appreciative of the comedy stylings of the entire cast, with Miller's Tartuffe, Amy Stockhaus's Dorine, Rosalie Alspach's Mariane, Kate Fitzgerald's Elmire, and Josh Conrad's Orgon earning an especially enthusiastic response.

A play by Molière
Translation by Richard Wilbur

McPherson Theatre
Illinois Wesleyan University

Director: Nancy B. Loitz
Scenic Designer: Curtis C. Trout
Costume Designer: Marcia K. McDonald
Lighting Designer: Krystal Martinez
Sound Designer: Kamaya Thompson
Stage Manager: Raven Stubbs
Dramaturg: James Matthews

Cast: Allyce Torres, Josh Conrad, Kate Fitzgerald, Blake Bauer, Rosalie Alspach, Zach Wagner, Ian Coulter-Buford, Chase Miller, Amy Stockhaus, Elliot Plowman, Josh Levinson, Casey Cudmore.

Performances through February 19, 2012. Click here for box office information.


  1. I've never been able to get the hang of this play, but this may be because I've only read it, not seen it. The ending, for instance, seems awfully out-of-the-blue, deus-ex-machina-ish. Does it come off more organically in performance?

    The links to other posts just above the comments are a relatively new feature, aren't they? Are they random or do you select them?

  2. The end is very deus-ex-machina. Rex-ex-machina? It's always come off to me like Moliere couldn't think of any other way to get his people out of their jam. Plus I don't like that it takes an hour (sometimes more like 45 minutes) to get Tartuffe on stage. I was thinking about it, because I've seen Tartuffe at every college I've ever reviewed at and other Moliere plays at a few of them, and none of them have completely succeeded. In fact, the only Moliere production I can remember seeing that succeeded for me was "The Misanthrope" that you and I saw at the Guthrie with Daniel Davis.

  3. Oh, and I added that little app because I wanted more graphics on my pages. It's not random, but tries to find things that match somehow. But it changes, too, so if you refresh the page or come back another time, the choices may be different.