Nearly three and a half centuries after Moliere’s comedy “Tartuffe” offended the devout Catholics of King Louis XIV’s court, Ithaca College Theater is putting a new spin on the classic tale of hypocrisy and mistaken identity.
Originally set in the home of a 17th-century, upper-class French family, “Tartuffe” is about a con artist who poses as a religious fanatic in order to steal the belongings and social status of Orgon, the well-off head of the household. Through lies and deceit, Tartuffe invades Orgon’s home and turns the lives of everyone in the house upside down.
The college’s production transports “Tartuffe” from aristocratic France to the streets of Creole New Orleans, circa 1830, when it was a hub for free people of color escaping the recent traumas of slavery. Greg Bostwick, director and professor of theater arts, said he chose this setting in order to take advantage of the diversity of the students in the department.
“The main driver of how we choose our season is the performance and design opportunities that best fit our students,” he said. “We’re so fortunate to have so many students of all colors. So I thought, ‘How can I be as inclusive as possible?’”
Bostwick cast many African-American actors, including junior Dominique Legaux, to principle roles. Legaux said her New Orleans heritage helped her prepare for the part of the household maid, Dorine.
“This is a culture I know very well,” she said. “It adds an extra dimension of personalities. It also makes it very interesting for the audience to keep up with.”
In order to fit Bostwick’s setting for the play, set designers, costumers and other crew members altered the technical aspects of the original “Tartuffe.”
Senior set designer Alexander Woodward said he purposely designed Orgon’s tidy and arranged home to contradict the eccentric action on stage. Woodward’s set contains earthy tones of brown and mustard yellow along with hardwood floor planking and white wall moldings.
“The house is kind of the symbol of power, so the set is represented by the Georgian order and style,” he said. “The world we created on stage feels very orderly, clean and proper, which contrasts the characters and the comedic elements.”
The comedy of the college’s production of “Tartuffe” comes mainly through the characters’ slapstick blocking. Fast-paced movements and sharply timed entrances and exits are part of what define the show’s humor. Senior Angelica Duncan, who plays Orgon’s coy and loving daughter Mariane, said Tartuffe’s outlandish actions also provide a large comedic focus.
“Tartuffe is an outrageously disgusting yet funny character,” she said. “You’re appalled and yet you’re so shocked by what he is doing that it makes you laugh.”
Duncan said audiences will easily relate to the exaggerated personas in the show.
“There’s a character that almost everyone can latch onto,” she said. “You’ve got the confidant, the father who always wants to have his way, the mistress who’s very observant, the thief and the two lovers who are just ridiculous.”
Junior Corey Whelihan, who plays the conniving and deviant Tartuffe, describes his character as “scary, inbred white trash,” but said in the end, Tartuffe’s antics do not take away from the overlapping positive message of the production.
“This particular production has a lot to say about family,” he said. “It really displays all that a family can be and the importance of sticking with your family.”
Bostwick said Tartuffe’s behavior is one of the most entertaining parts of the show as a whole.
“Religious hypocrisy never goes out of style,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot to look at, a lot to hear and a lot to take in that’s going to be different than your everyday Tartuffe.”
Senior costume designer Allison Gentry said finding costumes to fit the production’s 19th-century Southern themes posed some challenges.
“This is a difficult period to represent,” she said. “It’s not a time that was well documented. The hardest part about costuming this piece was finding as close to period costumes as possible.”
Gentry and other designers borrowed costumes from Cornell University’s theater department and several vintage stores as far away as Connecticut.
With its combination of original and unconventional aspects, Legaux said the college’s take on “Tartuffe” is sure to satisfy audiences.
“The show is full of life,” she said. “Once you’re in your seat, you won’t leave the same. You’ll sit down, laugh your butt off and then leave happy.”
“Tartuffe” will be performed at 8 p.m. today, tomorrow and Saturday with matinee performances at 2 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday, in Hoerner Theatre at Dillingham Center.