More than 300 years have passed since Molière wrote Tartuffe. But, this French farce remains as biting – and timely – as ever. Louis XIV banned it back in the day, under pressure from an angry archbishop. Were it written now, a few politicians (who shall remain nameless) might try to do the same. The rest of us can expect to guffaw our way through the production, which is opening at URI February 23 and running until March 4.
The play centers on a gullible Parisian patriarch, Orgon, who is tricked by a charlatan named Tartuffe. Orgon welcomes Tartuffe into his home and hails him as a spiritual guru. Tartuffe, who is no guru, speedily dupes him into signing over all his worldly possessions – including his daughter’s hand in marriage. Luckily for Orgon, the rest of his family is not so easily snowed. They hatch a plot to reveal this imposter’s true nature, and hilarity ensues.
Guest artist Tom Gleadow directs, with the same comic flair and infectious good humor he regularly brings to the stage as a professional actor. You might have seen him this past summer at Theatre By the Sea, in drag as Edna Turnblad of Hairspray, or last fall at Pawtucket’s Gamm Theatre, as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. While Gleadow has directed shows at Salve Regina, Tartuffe marks his URI directorial debut. And it’s particularly notable since he is also a recent graduate.
Gleadow’s first two years of college began in ’79, a time that he recalls fondly, if regretfully, as one without much emphasis on academics. After a few decades’ hiatus, he returned to school full-time to complete his undergrad degree by day while continuing to act at night. Courses for his theatre major might have come naturally, but he jokes that the general education classes nearly did him in. He says with a laugh, “Two semesters of Italian class? I wanted to kill myself. I did. And Anthropology – what?”
Classical theatre, however, is a subject dear to Gleadow’s heart. He was therefore excited for the chance to direct Tartuffe, and to give students a chance to perform a period piece complete with traditional costumes and verse. The students themselves suggested the play, and Gleadow found an adaptation with a modern translation of all the rhyming couplets from the original. He explains, “So, even though it’s set in the 1600s, it still has language that’s very easy to understand today.”
Gleadow only half-jokingly told his cast to work out over their winter break in preparation for this “roller coaster” of a show. In the first scene, he reveals, the stage is set and the momentum builds. Then the play is off and running with twists and turns and loads of physical comedy, so the actors need their energy. He hopes audiences will appreciate Molière’s nonstop comic moments, and considers it his job as director to ensure that the show is understandable even at its fast and furious pace.
What makes this comedy so incendiary? It takes aim at religious hypocrisy – and perhaps some folks just don’t have a sense of humor about such false pretense. Upon closer inspection, though, Tartuffe doesn’t mock religion or spirituality. Instead, it explores our susceptibility to swindlers, especially those who, like the title character, operate under the guise of piety. We all want to believe in something, want to feel inspired by someone. And that can turn us into sitting ducks for the wily Tartuffes of the world. So, watch out – and watch this show. Or, as Gleadow puts it, “Sit, buckle up and enjoy the ride.”