Highbrow period piece incorporates modern-day humor

Colorful, eclectic and unexpectedly relatable, the department of theatre and dance-sponsored production of “Tartuffe” transcends centuries while developing and renewing classic comedic innovations.

Directed by award-winning playwright, Artist-in-Residence Elizabeth Wong, this staging of Molière’s 17th century play touches on an aspect of the production that, according to Wong, deserves more attention from directors.

Wong said “Tartuffe” is “sometimes done in a very somber way. It’s really meant as a comedy. It was the slap stick comedy of the 17th century.”

“Tartuffe” is the story of a wealthy man named Orgon who blindly trusts and favors the religiously arrogant, promiscuous Tartuffe whom his family detests. As the family works to expose its conman guest, the play highlights various pertinent themes including power, the nature of love and advocating for one’s own rights.

Wong’s interpretation of “Tartuffe” is a vibrant and boisterous comedy with an almost cartoonish nature. The characters use hilariously exaggerated body language and facial expressions to convey a refreshingly vintage sense of humor.

The play also centers around a variety of modern elements: props such as a rubber chicken, a selection of background music including “Let’s Get it On” by Marvin Gaye and “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas along with references to classic movies like Charlie’s Angels and The Pink Panther. All of these elements are integrated with elegant costume and set designs that look like they belong in Molière’s time.

The initial feel of this seemingly discordant arrangement is a bit like jumping into cold water. As Molière’s complex, absorbing drama unfolds, however, it becomes clear that combining the past with our present culture - mannerisms, music, voice inflection - allows the characters to resonate more directly with Geneseo’s modern audience, each in their own way. Of course, some of the references and props work better than others, but they are all valuable and unique.

“It’s a marriage of the old and the new, the 17th century and the 21th century, and I’ve tried to find the fun in both time zones,” Wong said.

Wong added that one of her goals in this interpretation of “Tartuffe” was “essentially Americanizing it in our vernacular - in our comedic tradition.”

The unique nature of “Tartuffe” lends itself to an exceptional kind of chaos and exciting variety onstage throughout the production, resonating from a group of actors truly invested in their characters’ personalities and comedic power.

Senior Russell Allen, who played Tartuffe with razor-edged confidence, said working with Wong provided actors a new level of responsibility, challenging them to devise much of their own comedic blocking and stage direction.

“You just have to show up every day and work your hardest and be full of ideas and possibilities,” Allen said. “You can’t shut things down. You have to be very open minded.”

Many of the funniest and most resonant scenes in “Tartuffe” focused on romantic relationships between the characters. One scene in which Orgon’s daughter Mariane, played by freshman Paige Gordon and her fiancé Valère played by freshman Grant Kusick argue about the future of their relationship, was particularly real, which made it particularly hilarious. “Tartuffe” depicts variations on romance from this more committed romantic position to lusty hookups behind closed doors.

“In a lot of ways, this play is a lot about love, but no one really attends to it because … most people attend to the political notions of the play,” Wong said. “[‘Tartuffe’] sweeps the spectrum of different types of ways people express affection and how it can undo you, but it can also heal you.”