‘Tartuffe’ is surprisingly fresh, lively

Drama department brings modern energy to classic play

ae-tartuffepromo-courtesyuvadramadepartment

The University Drama Department's production of "Tartuffe" retains the essence of the classic play by reworking rather than abandoning its more dated elements.

Courtesy UVA Drama Department

In the nearly 400 years since its publication, “Tartuffe,” by French playwright Molière, has been performed countless times. Its enduring appeal has caught the eye of many ambitious directors and casts, earning it a place as a classic work of theater. Earlier this month, the University Drama Department opened its own production of “Tartuffe,” a surprisingly energetic and refreshing rendition that, if not for the period dialogue and costumes, could just as easily have been a modern piece. 

Deviating from a traditional set, this production of “Tartuffe” adopted a more minimalistic approach, using a small, square stage raised several feet off the ground in the Ruth Caplin Theatre. Its only permanent set piece was an ornate depiction of Jesus on the cross, raised above the stage as if watching over the characters as the events unfolded. This metaphor was not lost during the performance, as actors raising their heads when referencing heaven were forced to look straight into the eyes of God — an especially striking detail, since the characters acted in ways that contradicted their claims of piety and honor. 

Each piece of the production seemed to reflect these overarching themes of superficiality and false pretenses. The costumes especially accomplished this idea, as they reflected the dress of the period, but were extravagant in their sparkle and bright colors. This slight deviation from strict realism allowed the play to almost transcend its limitations of antiquated setting, giving it a new flair that drew the eyes of the audience. 

The understated set of “Tartuffe” was effective largely because it focused the attention of the audience on the most significant source of revitalizing spirit in the play — the actors themselves. In a play so old and formal, it would be easy to lose track if even one character was not wholly invested and engaging. Luckily, this was not the case, as the entire ensemble of actors was strong and bold in their performances. 

Each character was approached with lively energy and excitement, which kept the occasionally drawn-out scenes interesting to watch throughout the entire two-hour show. The actors also succeeded in integrating modern tones into the story. Instead of being caught up in the formality of the dialogue and acting to reflect that, the actors used a remarkable range of expression and movement which made the characters feel immensely real and current. The stakes seemed high, and their struggles seemed immediate, lending to an easily maintained audience investment. 

Notable performances abounded, including graduate College student Priyanka Shetty as Dorine, the housemaid, whose interjections of brassy commentary imbued the play with a fresh sense of comedy. Fellow graduate College student Michael Miranda also shone as the titular character, bringing a delightful creepiness to the character that fully lived up to the gradual buildup to his entrance. His dynamic interactions with the central family made his character immensely easy and fun to hate, drawing the audience in and allowing them to genuinely empathize with the other characters.  

It is no small task to undertake a classical piece in its original form. Dated language and plot has the capability to isolate audiences who are not familiar with the story, and for this reason many plays such as “Tartuffe” fly under the radar. However, the Drama Department’s production should not be cast aside in this way. Instead of being innovative with its setting, as so many directors of classic plays attempt to do, this production of “Tartuffe” was innovative in its ability to embrace the original form and setting of the story and fully transport the audience into that world. “Tartuffe” was bold and exciting not despite its classical nature, but because of it.

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