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C. Spencer Beggs | Friday, October 10, 2003

“I see people accepting things at face value are deceived by illusions and are too gullible. I just think that we don’t penetrate the messages we get from the media, from politicians, from the culture in general,” Frederic Syburg said in his characteristically slow speech.

It’s seems rather odd that this soft-spoken man, who ambles slowly through the corridors of Washington Hall, recommends a healthy dose of questioning authority to students, but that’s exactly what Syburg said he wants to accomplish with his presentation of Notre Dame’s Department of Film, Television and Theatre’s first show of the year, Tartuffe.

But Syburg is also doing some questioning of his own with the show. Tartuffe is part of FTT’s “best of” season, during which the department is reproducing some of its favorite shows from its 138-year tenure in Washington Hall before it relocates to the grand Marie P. Debartolo Performing Arts Center next year. Syburg directed over 40 shows, including a 1964 adaptation of Tartuffe, for the department while he was a professor at the University from 1954 to 1991. This time around, Syburg said he sees the show in a whole new light.

When Syburg first produced his own prose adaptation of Molière’s famous social satire, he added a monologue to the beginning of the show from a character playing the French poet himself defending the production from being seen as an attack on religion. This time, Syburg said he doesn’t feel that the message needs to be drawn out as pointedly and is a reflection on a shared human frailty.

“I’ve done message plays, but this isn’t one of them; this is a kind of universal observation of human nature,” Syburg said.

Set in 17th century France, Tartuffe is a comedy about Orgon, a well-respected French nobleman who lives happily with his wife and two children in bourgeois society. He takes in a man named Tartuffe, whom he believes to be exceedingly pious, to act as a spiritual guide for his family. But not every member of his household sees Tartuffe’s lofty speeches and melodramatic sighing as an indication of a deeper spirituality. They see him for what his is: a charlatan out to profit from Orgon’s gullibility, ready to steal all he can from his benefactor including his newly betrothed daughter, Mariane.

Tartuffe is anchored by some strong acting from a remarkably talented cast. The ensemble includes three freshmen along with a number of seniors and staples of Notre Dame theatre, but it would be hard to pick out who’s who.

“I was really confident about everyone in the cast – there’s three freshmen in the show and I’ve never worked with them before and I never doubted their talent at any point,” senior Megan Olive said.

The female cast members are especially strong. Leading the way is Megan Olive as Marianne’s pragmatic and clear-headed maid, Dorine. Olive, who is known for her skill playing rye, saucy wench types, infuses Tartuffe with a rambunctious spirit and brings out a lot of comedic moments from her character and from others. Senior Rose Lindgren and freshman Krysta Dennis also submit commanding performances as Orgon’s mother and wife, giving new meaning to the Freudian idea of wanting to marry your mother.

Senior Adel Hanash, known for his fiery performances as passionate characters like Hamlet’s Laertes and Henry IV’s Hotspur, plays the villainous Tartuffe with a surprisingly gentle touch, guarding a delightfully devious smirk just below his angelic exterior. Hanash is able to pull some particularly funny reactions from senior Sean Nelson’s volatile and exceedingly stupid Organ. But the true show stopper here is senior Mike Federico as the pompous courtier Loyal. Federico, who is one stage for no more than five minutes, had the audience howling in laughter and bursting into applause when he exited.

Dennis said that working with such a range of talents was a learning experience for her, though she seems quite able to teach the rest of the cast a thing or two about acting herself.

“It’s nice to work with people who have done it all before.” Dennis said.” I love working with Adel – he’s an amazing actor. I couldn’t have picked someone who is easier to work with.”

Tartuffe is a fun play to watch, and the cast gets some really big laughs from the audience at times. But this adaptation of Molière’s classic seems a bit tame for a play that was once censured by religious groups for being seen as an attack on the church. The biting cynicism and stinging wit Molière is famous for is diluted in the FTT production by a lot of gratuitous and self-serving slapstick antics. Like FTT’s production of Machiavelli’s The Mandrake last year, this show focuses too much on getting the cheap laugh than really burning the audience with its merciless insight. Molière’s text is rich in its psychological depth, and the FTT production glosses over a lot of the extremely powerful material that makes his words truly venomous rather than just pithy.

The set for the play also feels cumbersome. Set Designer Emily Phillips crosses a French drawing room with an abstract landscape of half-erect pillars, half-painted floating walls at jutting angles and selected words from the script splashed across the set. Syburg described the design as an “unfinished world,” which resonates with an academic authority, but in practice, it looks a lot more like an unfinished set.

The real drawback to this staging is that it leaves the actors with little room to maneuver and a lot of the show is played dead on to the audience, which makes the performance feel like a series of mini-speeches rather than the razor-sharp repartee that made Molière famous.

Even if the play has been defanged, it’s certainly enjoyable with such a talented cast. Audience members won’t leave questioning authority, but they will have had a good time.

Tartuffe is currently playing at Washington Hall. Performances are tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. General admission is $10, $9 for senior citizens and $7 for students. Tickets are available at the door or in advance at the LaFortune Student Center Box Office. To reserve tickets call (574) 631-8128.

Contact C. Spencer Beggs at [email protected]