He’s like the creepy uncle you never had

Amy Danielson

 

 

Last week, I saw an episode of Dateline in which a man who was supposedly possessed by demons received an exorcism. This man appeared to be heavily influenced by the power of suggestion. For instance, when asked if Lucifer was present, the man let out a long howl. I’m willing to bet that the man would have responded if the clergyman asked for Homerñalthough, in that case he probably would’ve let out a “D’oh!” He received several more similar prompts that aimed to release the demonic entities. By the end of the process, he was assured that he would no longer be troubled by these evil spirits. However, in subsequent weeks he required several more exorcisms before he finally felt any relief from the demons. I wonder if these additional exorcisms were prompted by the clergymen for selfish monetary reasons or if the man still believed that he was possessed. In any case, it seems like the guy would benefit more from a few sessions with a psychologist.

Similarly, let us look at Orgon, an upper-class Frenchman in Tartuffe, currently playing at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Orgon is played by theater co-artistic director Vincent Gracieux and he has fallen under the influence of the title character, a sinister sham minister. Is Orgon so gullible that if he lived now he would fall prey to the gimmicks for sale on late-night television? Or is he just an old man who is simply desperate to find salvation? What makes some people so easy influenced that they will give away all of there possessions for the promise of deliverance?

Orgon’s brother-in-law, Cleante (Brian Baumgartner) tries to convince Orgon of Tartuffe’s hypocrisy early in the play. “True bravery does not need to announce itself, neither does true piety. A true devout is opposite of this Tartuffe.”

“He repeats everything Tartuffe says, even his belches,” says Madame Pernelle (Charles Schuminski) of her son’s infatuation with Tartuffe. Schuminski plays a wicked old woman, adorned in a black dress and veil while veering around in an old wheelchair.

 

So when do we meet this Tartuffe? It is well into the play, long after the remaining characters have spoken ill of him. But Orgon will not be dissuaded, even promising his daughter Mariane to the man. Sarah Agnew performs as a playful Marianeñshe slides around on the floor in her beautiful, pink two-piece dress as though doing so were her favorite pastime. When Orgon informs her that she must marry Tartuffe, she presses her face into the back of a chair in agony. She spends much of the play so overwrought with emotion that she can’t control herself physically. She wants to marry another man, Valere (Charles Fraser), an overly emotional idiot adorned in a pink suit with an emaciated salmon-colored sash. His lack of spine and pathetic whimper don’t make him more attractive, not to mention his silly, curly brown locks. But he’s still a better choice than Tartuffe.

The performances here are oversized and physical, which is usual for the company. However, the use of physical characterization is most important to the development of Tartuffe, played by Steven Epp. He is a man of uncontained physicality. He whips himself and picks an apple off of a table with teeth. He uses a slow, monotone voice while speaking with Orgon’s wife, Elmire (Black-Eyed Susan) about her ongoing illnesses. Odd actions, such as twisting her arm behind her back and pulling up her dress, are credited to his religious devotion. He unbuttons the top of his suit as he compares Elmire to God. In contemplation, she stands rigid with her shoulders shrugged. She slowly bends down with a hand to her ear as he whispers seductions to her while sliding across to her on his stomach. Tartuffe laughs wickedly when she tells him that she won’t tell Orgon about their encounter. It is a cruel laugh that matches his cruel appearance: short bleach-blond hair and piercing red lips on a stark white face.

Similarly, Tartuffe’s cohorts (Nathan Keepers and Charles Schuminski) have buzz-cuts with crosses shaved into the backs of their heads, cross earrings dangling from their left ears, heavy pink eye makeup and pale faces. When another of Orgon’s relatives, Damis (Joel Spence), exposes Tartuffe for seducing Elmire, the menservants sit atop the table, swinging their legs like schoolboys while they drink wine and eat bread, as if observing the scene from an audience’s perspective. And, like the audience, they are observing acts of audacious cruelty delivered in the name of God, as Tartuffe once again twists his way out of his predicament, gilding his sins with sparkling religious language. Tartuffe’s cohorts laugh to see such fun, but their delight is not shared by the audienceñthe night I attended, the audience gasped repeatedly in horror, which is an unexpected response for a comedy. Then again, the Jeune Lune is not known for doing what is expected of them.

 

Tartuffe plays through December 2 at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, (612) 332-3968.