Sunday, February 7, 2010

BYU's Production of "Tartuffe"

After I saw The Bakkhai at the University of Utah last semester, I have been kind of weary with and lacking faith in avant garde college productions of classics. My trepidations continued into the opening of Tartuffe. I had heard that it was a rather musical interpretation with a Tim Burton flare. (Tim Burton show-tunes would be my personal circle of hell, by the way.) But to my surprise and delight, the production was, by and large, a success.

Like most BYU productions, the set design and staging was mind-blowingly good. The walls of the main room were two stories high and comprised of frames of various sizes and shapes holding blank canvas. At various points throughout the play, the actors made excellent use of those frames by standing behind them with a light shining from behind, revealing silhouettes of the players. And although there was lots of music, it was almost exclusively back-ground music. (Occasionally a player might sing about two lines.) Plus, it was good music. It really fit the the mood of the visuals. And they made excellent use of the piano

My only real complaint with the whole Tim Burton vibe was the eye makeup. Everyone looked a little too much like Rocky Raccoon. But they did a fairly good job of avoiding the whole Goth/Hello Kitty aesthetic which comprises Burton's style. One writer for the Daily Universe commented that it was similar to Brett Helquist's illustrations for A Series of Unfortunate Events, which I think is a more apt comparison.

Of course, the best thing about any production of Tartuffe will be the lines themselves. There are some great zingers in the mix. (And Moliere is also amazing at the dramatic set-up in the play. I love how long it takes us to actually see Tartuffe. By the time he comes on stage, there has been so much expectation and tension about him. Also, I love how Tartuffe can almost convince us that he's not guilty of things we've just seen him do.) But I thought most of the actors had a very fresh take on the characters while still being true to the work. The maids were especially good. I thought that Tartuffe himself did an admirable job, but I do enjoy a morose Tartuffe more than a giddy one.

If you, dear reader, have happened to see both the Bakkhai production and this version of Tartuffe, you may think me simply biased or hypocritical, because one of the things that irritated me so much in the U of U's play is that everyone screamed ALL their lines. Tartuffe was also a rather loud performance. But the critical difference is that the former is high-drama in the classic, tragic tradition, while the latter is a farce. It worked for the BYU performance, because it knew what it was and what it was doing. The U's play was never sure if it was farce or tragedy, and never knew its limits. Tartuffe was sexy while the Bakkhai was whore-ish.

And finally, good on the BYU drama department for picking this play. I don't think it's an inappropriate pick for an institution like BYU (they started the performance with a prayer), but I do think it's risky. Tartuffe is deliciously irreverent, and I could hear audible manifestations of some of the audience's discomfort over some of the lines/events. But I think it's all in good fun, and the play, ultimately, has a pretty solid message. Well done, BYU.

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