Reviews from Stratford: TARTUFFE and THE BREATHING HOLE

by Lynn on August 28, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Molière
Adapted by Ranjit Bolt
Directed by Chris Abraham
Designed by Julie Fox
Lighting by Michael Walton
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Cast: Graham Abbey
Rod Beattie
Maev Beaty
Michael Blake
Rosemary Dunsmore
Gordon S. Miller
Mercedes Morris
Monice Peter
Tom Rooney
Anusree Roy
E.B. Smith
Johnathan Sousa
Emilio Vieira

Tartuffe is about a religious charlatan who has bamboozled a gullible man with almost disastrous results, given a riotous production by Chris Abraham and his gifted cast of comedic pros.

The Story. It’s a scathing satire by Molière about corrupting power and hypocrisy. Orgon is a rich man. He becomes bamboozled by Tartuffe, who appears to be a poor pious religious man. Orgon invites Tartuffe to stay at his house and slowly Tartuffe begins to control Orgon. Orgon gives Tartuffe money and even promises his daughter in marriage to him. Tartuffe begins to put the moves on Orgon’s wife Elmire. Elmire and most of the household know Tartuffe is a fraud but Orgon will not be convinced until drastic measures are taken.

The Production. In the time of Molière Tartuffe was a pointed satire that skewered the church, charlatans, power and gullible people who believed in it all. It’s so obvious that it’s applicable to modern times, certainly in director Chris Abraham’s vibrant production.

It’s set in modern dress. Designer Julie Fox’s ultra-modern two-level set is furnished with the most stylish furnishings and the most gleaming of appliances. There is an espresso machine, a bullet blender and probably Veuve Clicquot in the fridge.

The clothes are chic. Orgon’s mother, Mme Pernelle, looks like she’s on Coco Chanel’s preferred customers list. The others are hip-stylish.

The translation is by Ranjit Bolt, a rock star of a translator. The text is very funny. Chris Abraham and his assistant director, Sarah Kitz reviewed other translations and changed lines here and there. They also sprinkled only the best and most damning Trumpisms into the text (with Bolt’s permission), mainly in Act II so we get a clear idea of how Chris Abraham views this most modern of classic satires. The overall affect is hilarious.

We are introduced to how some people revere Tartuffe and others of the household don’t when Mme Pernelle is leaving the house in a huff. No one listens to her or gives her respect. She thinks Tartuffe is great but she can’t stand to be there another minute. The household is living it up while Orgon is away. The music is loud; they are all dancing and drinking, even Dorine the maid.

The acting is fine if a bit shouty initially. Mme Pernelle is played by Rosemary Dunsmore who is very stylish and sophisticated but I thought she was pushing her voice initially.

I was impressed with Anusree Roy as smarmy Dorine. She stands up to everyone including Tartuffe. Roy is a diminutive, fearless powerhouse. She has a sense of the humour and the pushiness of that maid. Graham Abbey plays the hapless Orgon who tries to hold on to his family and sway them to Tartuffe. He is a stylish man in his own right but always seems to be tripped up with his own efforts to be with it. Whether he’s whizzing up a healthy drink or over-stretching his leg muscles, he just looks like the easy mark for a wily guy like Tartuffe. Orgon’s wife, Elmire is played with strong conviction, smarts and elegance by Maev Beaty. She knows that Tartuffe is a fraud but he’s smart. She’s smarter and sets a trap for him that almost goes awry when Orgon keeps missing his cues to save her.

The incomparable Tom Rooney plays Tartuffe. We hear so much about Tartuffe from so many sides before he appears that all the work is done by the time he comes on stage. And his entrance is without fanfare. He just appears, quietly. Tartuffe does not have to shout to get our attention.

He is impressive when we see him: tall, slim, dressed in a black robe with a huge crucifix round his neck, long dark hair, almost straight faced.

When matters get heated as he is trying to make the moves on Elmire, Tom Rooney whips out a box of mints and flips the lid of the box. Rooney’s sense of humour, his attention to such physical detail, results in the most hilarious performance.

And this production is a laugh riot with bite, that clearly skewers our modern world. I thought that perhaps the Trump references went on too long, but that’s a quibble.

Produced by the Stratford Festival

Began: Aug. 1, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 13, 2017.
Cast: 13; 8 men, 5 women
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

The Breathing Hole

At the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Colleen Murphy
Directed by Reneltta Arluk
Set by Daniela Masellis
Costumes by Joanne Yu
Lighting by Ital Erdal
Composer and sound by Carmen Braden
Cast: Jani Lauzon
Miali Buscemi
Johnny Issaluk
Gordon Patrick White
Yolanda Bonnell
Hunter Smalley
Angelina FosterdelMundo
Ujarneq Fleischer
Jamie Mac
Bruce Hunter
Deidre Gillard-Rowlings
Nick Nahwegahbow
Evan Kearns
Thomas Mitchell Barnet
Randy Hughson
Jim Codrington
Zlatomir Moldovanski
Victor Ertmanis
Jimmy Blais
Juan Chioran
Sarah Dodd
Katelyn McCulloch
Ciara Kittmer

This is Colleen Murphy’s earnest, often powerful play about an epic journey from the time of Sire JohnFranklin’s expedition to the North Pole, into the future and how the environment and our native peoples have been treated. Given a respectful production but the best acting and most human characters are the polar bear puppets, which are astounding. And some of the writing is muddy instead of clarifying.

Story. The Breathing Hole by Coleen Murphy was commissioned by the Stratford Festival to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary.

It starts in the north with the Inuit and their reverence to nature, in particular polar bears. An old woman, played by Jani Lauzon, considers the bears mystical in their existence. Her family is not that reverential. Food is scarce. Everyone is hungry, including the animals. Two or three polar bears have a strong presence from scene to scene, both as mythic representatives and as the noble beast of the north. They prosper as the humans do and they suffer when there is starvation.

The play begins at the time of the Franklin expedition to the North and there is trouble, no food, harsh weather and the British are not prepared. The Inuit try to help but there is a lack of common language. Franklin seems respectful to the Inuit while his crew is stereotypically condescending.

Then the play fast forwards to modern times and the environment is in trouble, climate change is in full swing. There are oil spills in the arctic waters that of course affect the vegetation and the animals.

Some people try to preserve the environment and it’s not necessarily the Inuit. There are clashes of cultures. Matson Day is a well-meaning conservationist of sorts who has long planned luxury cruises for people can take through the Northwest Passage to see for themselves what is happening. The first voyage takes place on New Year’s Eve for a group of bored, rich folks with no interest in the environment or the animals. They just want a good time

The Production. At the top of the production, two Inuit children project shadows on a wall using hand-held forms. One could be a polar bear roaring up; another is a man against nature. The future (the children) create shadows of things that are important in their lives. The children project these shadows at the beginning of both Acts.

Huumittuq is an elder woman (Jani Lauzon) with markings on her face, as do the others in her tribe. She is mystical and reverential to the polar bears in the area. Because she is an elder in the case she is not treated with much respect. She is at the edges of interest by her family and the people in her community. Director Reneltta Arluk has her lag behind.

The dialogue for the native people is stiff, stilted and has its own formality. The actors playing these Inuit tend to be stiff in their delivery as well.

Sir John Franklin (Randy Hughson) is gruff and formal with his men but considerate and kindly towards the Inuit. His crew on the other hand treat the Inuit with clichéd distain, as if to suggest that because the Inuit don’t understand English, they are lesser. The way that Colleen Murphy has written them, the Inuit have more smarts and brains than the English.

Reneltta Arluk is an Inuit and that informs her direction. She creates that world of myth, tradition, understanding of the land and its animals. The shadow show that opens each Act is a window into that world.

The most astonishing aspect of the production is the life-sized polar bear puppets. They are exquisite and delicate. The breathing hole is a hole in the ice through which the Inuit can fish and the polar bear can stick its head down and grab a fish in it’s jaws. When the bears do this several times in the production, it’s magical every time.

They seem to be made of white strips of material that are connected so when the puppets move the strips undulate giving the sense of the fur moving. A person is inside the structure manipulating the legs as it moves. The person wears tights that have a design that blend in with the colours of the bear puppets.

At times the movement and nuance of the head of the puppet is so subtle they convey emotion and communicated better than the actors. When the Inuit are hungry and starving, so are the bears, who are thin, their fu is limp and a sickly grey. Later when the waters of the Northwest Passage are polluted with oil we see a paw of a polar bear symbolically flip over the side of a boat, looking for relief from the oil; it is covered in black smears of oil. Again, the polar bear is symbolic of the damage done to the environment. Those on board the boat couldn’t care less about the bear or the environment.

There is no specific credit for the puppets so I assume they are created by Joanna Yu.

Comment. While there’s much to celebrate while we mark our country’s 150th anniversary, Colleen Murphy’s play is to be celebrated too for its not shying away from focusing on much for which we should be ashamed: our disrespectful treatment of Indigenous people, our thoughtless, reckless behaviour towards the environment and animals; our lack of knowledge of our history.

Some aspects of the story seem clichéd: that there are too few people who care about the environment vs. the rich louts who don’t care at all. While the press information says that this is a story over five hundred years old as told through the eyes of the polar bear, I’m not sure the play actually realizes that claim. Concerns aside, I respect that the play and production are very earnest in their intention.

Great pains were taken to cast indigenous actors for many of the roles. Great care was taken to consult with Inuit designers and crafts people regarding props, costumes, makeup, dramaturgy and the language.

So in these tricky times of appropriation of stories, I hope respect will be paid to Colleen Murphy a white playwright, for taking on the task of creating this important story.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Began: July 30, 2017.
Closes: Sept. 22, 2017.
Cast: 23: 16 men, 7 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

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1 Jani Lauzon September 7, 2017 at 7:34 pm

The puppets were designed by Set and props designer Daniela Masellis…they are considered props and not costumes I guess. Bruce Hunter manipulates Angu’juaq and Deidre Rowlings and I share his mate Panik. Didi manipulates Panik while I am Hummituk and then I get in the bear. The Bear choreography was created by it’s manipulators and the design was in consolation with the puppeteers as we are the ones that manipulate them.

Just to clarify.

Jani Lauzon