TARTUFFE by Molière, directed by László Marton, translated by Richard Wilbur, with Diego Matamoros, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Gregory Prest, William Webster, Oyin Oladejo and Kat Gauthier. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre (50 Tank House). Previews from Thursday (August 7), opens Tuesday (August 12) and runs to September 20. See soulpepper.ca for schedule. $29-$89, rush $5-$23. 416-866-8666. See listing.
Though Molière's great comedy Tartuffe is 350 years old, its plot involving sanctimonious deception and underhanded seduction is still fresh.
At its centre is the title character, a mock-religious figure who tricks the well-off Orgon with his heavenly talk. It doesn't matter that most of Orgon's family try to warn him about Tartuffe, who covets not only Orgon's wife and daughter but also his fortune.
As actor Raquel Duffy rehearses for Soulpepper's staging of the play, directed by returning guest artist László Marton, she recalls how her take on it has changed since she first read it in university.
"Then it was simply a comedy, and our academic look at the script emphasized that its 1664 premiere was problematic because it was thought to be sending up the Church.
"But now that I'm performing it, I see all the levels that make it so contemporary. The family is modern, with Orgon and his young second wife, Elmire, along with his two children, trying to sort out their lives under the influence of an outsider who uses religion for his own purposes."
Duffy plays Elmire, the object of Tartuffe's lust, but her character handles his unwanted advances coolly.
"As one of Molière's strong female characters, Elmire intrigues me," admits Duffy. "If I were in Elmire's situation, I'd handle it totally differently. She aims for grace and clarity of thought, using her power in a subtle fashion."
Rather than go screaming to Orgon that his best friend is coming on to her, Elmire "lets her husband go on a journey to discover the truth. She waits before acting, stepping in only when she has to and even then in a kind and reasoned manner. Unfortunately, her plan backfires."
That plan is a memorable part of the play, arguably the most surefire comic scene in classical theatre. Elmire has Orgon hide under a table and listen while Tartuffe seduces her.
"The levels of what's happening are really exciting, and we're digging around to find out how far we can go to keep both the humour and the potential nastiness."
It helps that she's working with two of Soulpepper's ablest performers, Diego Matamoros as Tartuffe and Oliver Dennis as Orgon.
Coincidentally, Duffy played the scene with Matamoros a few years ago, but not in a production of Tartuffe. It was in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Royal Comedians, a biographical play directed by Marton in which Matamoros played Molière and Duffy was a member of his theatre troupe.
"That was so different; we approached it as it would have been done in the 17th century rather than the contemporary staging for this version of Tartuffe. But it was after doing that production that László knew he had to direct the whole play.
"Working on it now, Diego and I are figuring out where we can take the relationships while still being true to the text."
Tackling the scene in quite different contexts gives Duffy, who first worked with Soulpepper as part of its second training Academy and is now a resident artist, a chance to reflect on how the company has helped her grow. This year alone she's in five productions, including a beautiful turn as a fake White Russian noblewoman in Idiot's Delight and a return performance as a powerful celestial visitor in Angels In America.
"I don't mean to sound pretentious, but in the early years I felt like an actor, and now I feel like an artist. What I mean is that I've become comfortable putting my ideas on the table with the others in the company. Earlier, I felt like a pawn in a chess game; now I know that my voice counts for something."