By Sarah Downs
When was the last time you went to the theatre and had a ball? Well, here’s your chance. The Three Day Hangover theatre company’s inventive adaptation of “Tartuffe” brings theatre back to its more interactive roots when audience members didn’t have to sit quietly — not that that’s a bad thing, indeed I have been known to shush a chatty Cathy or two at the opera — but for this theatre company it would be positively rude to behave with such decorum. The audience is part of the show, mingling with the cast throughout the evening, and being called upon to join the ‘onstage’ action.
Brilliantly adapted by Jake Brandman “Tartuffe” tells the story of a sly interloper who works his way into the heart and home of a gullible family whose lives he threatens to destroy. Updated to the modern era, Tartuffe is a slippery Republican political candidate in an ‘unspecified Red state,’ whose ambition finds the perfect dupe in Olga, a zealous, one might say obsessed, Republican matriarch who rules her hapless (hopeless) family with a bright and steely efficiency. As various family members come to see Tartuffe for who he really is, the farce spirals to its denouement as each family member tries to convince Olga of Tartuffe’s true nature. Dysfunctional to the core, this family has a rough go of it. They are no match for Tartuffe’s wiles. It is a show within a show, or perhaps a farce atop a farce, as the original story and its translated context follow parallel trains of thought. The text alternates between prose and rhyming couplets, depending on who is speaking to whom. This duality identifies character adding a level of clarification that subtly but effectively underscores the space each player inhabits. Tartuffe is fluent in both styles of speech. Like any good politician he can talk out of both sides of his mouth.
From the moment you step into Three Day Hangover’s quirky performance space in McAlpin Hall at the West Park Church, you are thrown back to teenage dances and church rummage sales, as echoes of the past emanate from the dusty corners and creaking floorboards. This enhances the sense of theatre as agora. We greet each other on the same level, figuratively and literally, watching the action from small tables ranged around the central floor area. Drinks in hand we are there to watch and play. The actors enter from all sides, kicking the night off most appropriately — with a catchy musical number. There’s nothing like a good show tune to get you going.
Olga (Carol Linnea Johnson) as a blend of narrator and character inhabits the political, emotional and narrative terrain on which the show takes place. Polished, chipper and determined, she brings the action into focus. Ms. Johnson is a dynamo. A terrific actress and expert comedienne, she carries her twin responsibilities effortlessly. She’s fun. She’s nuts. She’s a Republican. What’s not to love? Her long-suffering husband Elmer (Sean Tarrant) does his earnest best, but he ends up with little high-heeled footprints all over him. Tarrant, lanky and slightly klutzy, presents a sweetly myopic man, but behind those powerful prescription glasses one can see a devilish glimmer. His brother Clint (Dustin Charles) a free-loading Progressive wannabe,periodically emerges from his smoky bedroom lair Doritos in hand, to do his best to enlighten someone – anyone – regarding the world’s urgent need for liberal politics and corn chips. In disheveled clothes and hair that has not seen a comb in quite some time, Charles manages to walk the line between zoned out and astute and make it look easy. He’s sharp and funny while remaining incredibly mellow. Engaging in a fruitless battle of rhyming couplets with Olga’s uber-Right wing mother Mrs. Pernelle (Dillon Heape) Clint the adjunct Poli-Sci professor shows he is ready to do political battle for, like, an hour a day. As Mrs. Pernelle, Heape, in tweed suit and pearls is the epitome of unspecified Red state old money motherhood. It can often happen that a man in a dress is funny just because he’s a man in a dress, but Heape easily avoids this trap. His Mrs. Pernelle is batty and politically benighted; and she also just happens to be a little burly.
As Olga’s two somewhat dimwitted children David and Mary, Dan Morisson and Abbey Siegworth are terrific. Morrison’s frenetic David, whose antipathy toward his mother’s idol finds expression in a series of not entirely well thought out plans to thwart Tartuffe and rid the family of his presence, is hysterical. Siegworth is equally funny, with her slightly vapid gaze, Valley girl twang and howls of frustration as she tries to follow the action. You have to admire her pluck. Mary may not fully understand what’s going on, but she never gives up trying. The voice of sanity in this household is that of the housekeeper, Doreen. A recent transplant from Australia, she has the perspective of several oceans’ distance to keep her above the fray most of the time, shaking her head at the various shenanigans around her. Leah Gabriel is very engaging in this role – funny and a little seditious. You feel for her as she pulls the one or another inept family member back from the brink. As Mary’s do-nothing beau, Jose Cagigal is a bit of a hidden gem, making a lot out of a smaller role. Like all of the actors in this play, Cagigal imprints his character securely. His self-absorbed Val is spot on.
Which brings us to the man of the hour, Tartuffe. Tom Schwans is outstanding. He glides from scene to scene turning on a dime as Tartuffe parries more than one attempt to divert him from his path to Master of the Universe. Woe betide anyone who tries to match wits with this couplet spouting man of many secrets. Particularly dangerous when speaking prose, he is Tartuffe 2.0., by turns slippery, charming, devilish, sexy, powerful and downright scary. As a professor of theatre, Schwans could assign his own performance as homework to his students. It is such a pleasure to watch an actor open his toolbox and just play.
There is not a weak link in this production. The adaptation is witty and modern while remaining true to the original. Beth Gardiner’s excellent direction is strong, yet so organic you don’t feel it. By clearly delineating the playing space both physically and narratively, establishing characters swiftly and setting up the structure within the audience interaction will take place, Gardiner expertly guides the audience through an experience that is both improvisational and measured. The setting is inventive and simple. Costumes by Caitlin Cisek effectively underscore each character, and Madeline Smith’s snappy music sets the tone of fun that pervades the whole experience. Interactive theatre could easily be a little precious, self-conscious or awkward, but no fear of that here. Ms. Gardiner, who also conceived the piece, deftly avoids the pitfalls of immersive theatre as she moves the actors seamlessly between the audience and the stage. Their work is authentic, and you feel it. These people have such joy in their work, high energy and total commitment to character that you cannot but let that spirit overtake you. Good news, people: joy is contagious.
Adapted by Jake Brandman. Directed by Beth Gardiner.
Featuring: Jose Cagigal, Dustin Charles, Leah Gabriel, Dillon Heape, Carol Linnea Johnson, Dan Morrison, Tom Schwans, Abbey Siegworth and Sean Tarrant
Runs Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM through November 21 at McAlpin Hall at The West Park Church, 165 West 86th Street at Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10024. Tickets, which are $15, are currently on sale at ThreeDayHangover.com. A full bar will be available throughout the evening.