For Augustana College's first show of its 2022-23 season, director and professor of theatre arts Jeff Coussens, his skilled cast, and creative staff have taken on Tartuffe – and have triumphed. I attended Tuesday's dress rehearsal, and all I knew about the play beforehand was that it's a classic farce by French playwright Molière – a one-name superstar, like Cher. (I later learned that France's tubercular hardcore thespian, coughing up blood onstage while acting in one of his own plays, finished his performance nevertheless and died after the final curtain. Attaboy.)
Coussens also directed this script in 1990, his production set, as written, in 17th-century Paris, with the actors in period-appropriate garb and long, curled wigs. For this go-'round, he ingeniously moves the action to late in the Reagan era, and the locale to Louisiana – one of the French-iest parts of the U.S. If you don't know or remember the big scandal there at that time, one wickedly apropos of this play, no worries, because a console TV kicks off the show with an expository montage of vintage news clips, and continues at intermission with a wonderful stream of real commercials, TV trailers, and PSAs of the era. (This also educates the under-40 set about a device used to fine effect in Act II.) Finally, we see retro static – not digital pixelated colors crawling over the screen, but good old-fashioned broadcast snow and white noise, giving way to a blank screen with the white blip which all CRT TVs had at sign-off. (Yes, I'm getting sentimental over old TVs' no-signal output.)
Molière wrote Tartuffe in rhyme, and some 400 years later, Richard Wilbur translated it into rhymed English. The poetic expression and meandering narrative makes this tough material, and I was apprehensive about how well the troupe could pull it off. Ultimately, they did so smoothly, although the performance started a bit rough for me. The first few scenes were frustrating because much of the dialogue was incomprehensible. The actors employ accents, mostly the generic Southern drawl you've probably heard in country music, and their diction, overall, was good. Most of the time, they also rightly speak their lines as sentences, de-emphasizing the rhymes instead of stressing them, and speak rapidly so their talk flows, instead of landing on rhyming words with a thud, then a pause. However, on occasion, the actors' using accents and talking quickly and inserting emotion plus applying their character's particular vocal quirks left me aurally baffled. All I could glean was that characters were arguing.
Yet after a while, the clearly talented, well-rehearsed actors slowed down a bit, or my ears simply acclimated, or both. This gang here is a family, and the chief subject is their purportedly pious house guest Tartuffe (played by the ever-droll Will Crouch). Everyone except dad Orgon (Michael Tarchala) and grandmother Pernelle (Esther Jakobsson) thinks Tartuffe, to put it bluntly, is a dick. Orgon is forcing his daughter Maryann (Megan Yarusso) to marry him, even though she's in love with Valerie (Maya Smith). Mom Elmire (Allison McPeak) knows about Tartuffe's underhanded handsy-ness first-hand, but Orgon won't believe her. Orgon also locks horns with his son Damis (Noah Johnson) and Elmire's brother Cléante (Soryn Richter) over that Bible-thumping so-and-so Tartuffe. Meanwhile, the maid Dorine (Georgi Feigley) puts in her deux centimes throughout. In smaller roles, we're given more wonderful performers: Ethan Gabrys plays a lawyer, Christian Gonzalez portrays a cop, and Emma Watts is Pernelle's abused maid Flipote.
Got all that? Great. I've gotta tell you about this cast's amazing physical prowess. There's a lot of movement going on alongside the rhymes, and all the actors have outstanding control over their bodies and faces. Crouch, in particular, smarms, wallows, struts, cringes, and sobs hilariously all over the maison. He orates. He dances. He fondles. It's so fun to hate that hypocrite, I wish Crouch had more scenes. Tarchala's histrionics also provoke laughs. His Orgon throws tantrums like a two-year-old while still insisting that he is in charge. Balancing these two performances is the realism of Richter. Cléante calmly strides around, brown-suited, with natural gestures and a thoughtful tone of voice. At one point, Richter drops a few French names in a French accent easily into his otherwise Southern-sounding lines, creating the Louisiana-est vocal bit in the show. Johnson's Damis is similarly straightforward, though less intellectual and more reactive, but endearing and very earnest in his standout '80s wardrobe.
McPeak is satisfyingly clever, yet fallible, as her Elmire tries to nab Tartuffe in a scheme to reveal his depravity. (You knew there had to be a scheme here somewhere, right?) Yarusso's Maryann is naïve and timid, and I cheered for her and Smith as her chosen fianceé, as well as for Feigley's maid, who champions their cause. In Augustana's Tartuffe, there is skulking, plotting, things overheard, a comeuppance or two – all the fun things farce brings. Your theatrical escapades must include Molière, so take this perfect opportunity to add it to your spectator's résumé.
Tartuffe runs at Augustana College's Brunner Theatre Center (3750 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island IL) through October 16, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)794-7306 and visiting Augustana.edu/tickets.