PASJ Does “Tartuffe,” a Madcap Labor of Love

Studio Theater in Lone Mountain buzzed with the hum of a thoroughly amused audience. The show that had just ended was the performing arts and social justice department’s production of “Tartuffe,” the classic, 17th century comedy by Molière, and it was conducted with a strict adherence to the source material. That is, all the characters are in drag and affixed with clown noses, which we can assume would give the French writer pause. Of course, the spirit remains the same; this is a play about sticking it to power, and what better way to do that than to crosscast and besmirch the actors’ faces with red noses?


PASJ’s production, staged by faculty member and experienced director Ken Sonkin, is gleefully filled with anachronisms. Characters text and skateboard, and a Barry White song introduces the woman of the house and target of Tartuffe’s adulterous affections, Elmire (played here by freshman Kalan Birnie). It creates a general feeling of anarchy, and the intimacy of the Studio Theater means that audience members will inevitably be involved with the screwball antics on-stage. The inmates are running the asylum here, breaking the fourth wall with significant glances and inflections.


Moliѐre was, at the show’s inception in 1664, sticking it to the Catholic church’s dogmas, which the cast proudly flaunted here. “Tartuffe,” regarded as one of the most important works of comedy, is the story of a bourgeoisie family and their interactions with the nefarious title character, played here by Juliana King. He is a scoundrel who attempts to steal their wealth while hiding behind the convincing guise of religious piety. At the behest of the archbishop of Paris, it was banned by King Louis XIV, but, of course, this only made it more popular – so popular that productions of it are now encouraged by Catholic universities. Time is a funny thing.


It is a show told entirely in rhyme, and the cast delivered their long list of zingers with rebellious zeal. One first, of course, has to marvel at a translation that retains all the rhyme and wit of the French, and then at the actors’ abilities to handle the sing-song meter of the show.  


The ridiculous costumes also give the performers plenty of opportunities to get laughs out of thin air. In the lighting of the theater, harsh eye-makeup and ruby lips on all the characters go brilliantly with the clown noses; for good or ill depending on your relationship with clowns, this is certainly a collection of Pennywises performing a whip-smart satire. It makes the entire show seem just a little more off. Surprisingly less jarring is the drag, although, of course, it provides fertile ground for several good gags involving manspreading and the hiding places that a dress can provide.


The success of these unwritten gags rests on the actors, and they more than provide. Many members of this cast have been involved in productions by the College Players, and it is oddly comforting to watch them performing outside the realm of the musical. “Tartuffe” provides essentially a great promotion for the PASJ department; if this is the show that only took a semester to produce, the department must be doing something right. More than anything else, the tiny Studio Theater space lets us see the passion and fun on the actors’ faces. This is clearly a labor of love for them, a final project that is a lot more exciting than writing a paper.


Featured Photo: In PASJ’s performance of “Tartuffe,” freshman Sarah Medley and seniors Aly Suleman and Evan Boukidis take on drag roles.  Hursh Karkhanis/FOGHORN


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