Friday, March 16, 2018

A Night at the Races

In Moliere's 17th-century comedy Tartuffe, Orgon promises his daughter Mariane's hand in marriage to Tartuffe, a seemingly pious gentleman who has wormed his way into the father's good graces. Apparently he doesn't care that she's in love with young Valere.

In the version now on stage at Ferndale's Slipstream Theatre Initiative, however, the story has been moved ahead a century or so and across an ocean to the up-and-coming town of Detroit, where it's Joseph Campau (likely Michigan's first millionaire and its largest landowner) who has been taken in by Tartuffe, and his daughter Catherine's hand that's been promised in marriage. And so the question the folks at Slipstream seem to be asking is this: How different would the Motor City be today had some of its most famous early citizens fallen for a trap set for them by a sweet-talking con man?

It's an intriguing question - and one given a madcap response by first-time director Mandy Logsdon that had my head spinning this past Friday night. (More on that later.)

As I've likely mentioned in previous posts, one of the reasons I keep going back to Slipstream is to watch how each show builds upon the lessons learned from past productions, and how the creativity of its artists stretches and grows with each new project. Sometimes they improve by leaps and bounds; other times not so much. But each is an earnest attempt at making an old show relate-able to modern-day audiences while also being respectful towards the intentions of its author.

That certainly is the case with Tartuffe. Initially produced in 1664 as a three-act comedy, subsequent revisions (due to criticisms from church and state alike) resulted in a five-act version that's commonly produced today. But don't worry: Slipstream's is a streamlined 80-minute romp that hits all the story's necessary plot points and provides a thoroughly satisfactory conclusion. (I probably don't need spoiler warnings for this, but the city's future is safe at the end of the show.)

It also presents actress Luna Alexander with an opportunity to push a character to the extremes, which is exactly what happens when she tackles the role of Adelaide DeQuindre, the wife of Joseph Campau and step-mother of Catherine. Adelaide isn't falling for the nonsense spouted by the overly religious Tartuffe - mostly because he's in hot (but secret) pursuit of her. And so she schemes to prove he's not the saint her husband (played by Dan Johnson) believes him to be. (Johnson seems to be everywhere these days!)

The result is one of Alexander's best comedic performances I've seen so far - and she's damn good in pretty much every show she's in. I won't spoil it for you, but watching her avoid the clutches of Jay Jolliffe's Tartuffe reminded a couple of us of the physical comedy Lucille Ball was known for throughout her television career. Her facial expressions are especially priceless! (Johnson has some fun moments as well, secretly watching the escapades while stuffed tightly underneath an antique sofa table.)

Much fun and revelry are added into the mix by the entire cast, but personal favorites include Slipstream newcomers Rachel Biber as the all-knowing, always-floor-sweeping family housekeeper, and Nancy Dawdry Penvose who plays multiple characters and keeps them all unique and separate. And artistic director Bailey Boudreau as John R. Williams adds some sanity to the doings (if threatening to hatchet his step-mother's pursuer can be considered sane in such a situation).

Unfortunately, an old Slipstream quirk (curse, maybe?) resurfaced with this production: A handful of actors rushed through blocks of their dialogue so fast that it seemed as though they were racing to get to a much more important engagement after the performance, which meant they were not speaking clearly and distinctly enough for everyone in the audience to understand them and follow the plot. It became so problematic at one point that I missed some important details and had a tough time catching up. I love enthusiastic actors, but diction matters, people!

All of the show's technical elements serve the show well. Especially impressive are the costumes by Tiaja Sabrie.

The Bottom Line: Tartuffe is yet another creative endeavor by the fearless and much-talented folks at Slipstream Theatre Initiative. The performance I saw wasn't perfect, but it was a whole lot of fun!

I was once again accompanied by my date Jenn McKee. Would you like to read what she thought of the production? If so, CLICK HERE!

For complete show details, CLICK HERE!

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