TARTUFFE by Molière (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House). Runs to September 20. $29-$74, rush $5-$23. 416-866-8666. See listings. Rating: NNN
There were lots of puzzled faces - including mine - during the intermission at Soulpepper's new production of Tartuffe. Fortunately, some curious decisions by director László Marton paid off in the second half, making this an intriguing, if not entirely successful, production of Molière's classic 1664 comedy.
Marton's high-concept version opens as if we're backstage, with a view of the theatre's exposed brick walls and the actors trying on period costumes. Fitting, I suppose, for a work concerned with surface appearances. The play is about how the eponymous vagrant worms his way into the home of the wealthy, naive Orgon, using his hypocritical piety to gain the man's trust so he can do some greedy, venal things.
As the tale unfolds, white walls from Lorenzo Savoini's set are locked into place to suggest Orgon's home, and while this initially seems arbitrary and looks cheap, a scene in act two when those same walls come apart - to illustrate Orgon's world quickly collapsing - is devastating.
Richard Wilbur's rhyming translation holds up nicely, but the company is uneven in their line delivery. Some, like Diego Matamoros (Tartuffe), Oliver Dennis (Orgon), Raquel Duffy (Orgon's wife, Elmire) and Gregory Prest (Cléante, Elmire's brother) make the poetry feel natural, but others don't connect with it, making us hear the rhymes instead of the meaning.
There's a bit of 1 per cent paranoia to the play's underlying theme of distrusting the poor. But other than that, the work's comedy succeeds, like the famous second-act set piece where Tartuffe's true nature is revealed. Even the classic deus ex machina scene gets a campy twist that earns laughs for its sheer silliness.