Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

PlayMakers Repertory Company
Review by Garrett Southerland

Also see Garrett's review of Little Shop of Horrors

Nemuna Ceesay, April Mae Davis, Shanelle Nicole
Leonard, Rishan Dhamija, Ray Dooley

Photo by HuthPhoto
In the words of P.T. Barnum, "There's a sucker born every minute," but the sentiment—and those who have exploited it—has a much longer history than that. In the seventeenth century, French playwright Molière built one of his plays around a wolf in sheep's clothing, and Tartuffe, presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company at UNC through March 11, rings all too familiar in our time, too. Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Molière is recognized as a pioneer of the comedic form, and in particular for his development of satire and witty banter that frequently sent up the very folks who patronized him. His plays lay the foundation for the modern entertainment we recognize in such shows as "Saturday Night Live."

Portrayed here with fiendish fun by Joey Collins, Tartuffe is a pious fraud who has fooled the wealthy head of a family, Orgon (Ray Dooley, a PlayMakers favorite), into taking him into his home and essentially waiting on him hand and foot. Unlike the patriarch, the rest of the family see through Tartuffe. Orgon's wife Elmire (a delightful Nemuna Ceesay), his brother in law Cléante (the engaging Rishan Dhamija), his two children Damis and Mariane (Brandon Haynes and April Mae Davis respectively), and housemaid Dorine (the charismatic and enthralling Shanelle Nicole Leonard) try to find any way they can to open Orgon's eyes and eject Tartuffe from their lives before he causes disruption and chaos that will be irreversible.

This play is a true ensemble piece with many characters getting a moment in the spotlight, though there are some characters who seem underused. Orgon's mother Madame Pernelle (PlayMakers favorite Kathryn Hunter-Williams) is confined to setting up what the play is about at the beginning, with little to do after that. Tartuffe's two servants (Carlos Alcala and Conner Nielsen) and Madame Pernelle's servant Flipote (David Fine) have no speaking lines, seemingly there purely to supply prat falls and comical expressions. But many of the main roles are exceptionally realized. Ray Dooley plays the duped patriarch Orgon with such grace and innocence that he easily elicits both our pity and our frustration at the same time. Joey Collins is superb as Tartuffe, delighting in his seediness and knowing that the audience will love to hate him. The true standout of the production is Shanelle Nicole Leonard, who steals the show in the first act as the mouthy maid Dorine. Making the most of the updated language, she walks away with more than the last word. Dorine seems to fit into Ms. Leonard's repertoire easily; she played a somewhat similar character in Dot earlier this season. I look forward to seeing her branch out of what might become a type in which she is pigeonholed.

This production uses David Ball's new adaptation, which takes the best of the original play and enhances it for a modern audience. The dialogue makes interesting use of rhyme, sometimes to greatly humorous effect, though there are some labored passages that might bring Dr. Seuss to mind. Capitalizing on the experimental qualities, Saheem Ali, making his PlayMakers directing debut, has assembled a design staff to further enliven the production, and the end result is something Baz Luhrmann might have envisioned. Alexis Distler's intricately beautiful set design (created to serve both Tartuffe and Lucas Hnath's The Christians in alternating performances) makes recurring use of crosses at all scales. Costume design by PlayMakers veteran Anne Kennedy is flamboyantly extravagant, and Oliver Wason's lighting design includes colorful strobes and, at one point, a disco ball, all adding up to a carnival-like atmosphere when the French pop music starts pumping.

Tartuffe seems to be a play for the ages. Should we be relieved that in 17th century France people struggled to see past the ends of their noses, a charge frequently leveled in our time? As long as hard facts are touted as "fake news" and religious fanaticism wins out over pious wisdom, Tartuffe will be there, waiting for the next sucker to come along and fall for his act.

Tartuffe, through March 11th, 2018, by PlayMakers at the Paul Green Theatre at UNC's Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill NC. Tickets can be purchased online at or by phone at 919-962-7529.

Playwright: Molière
Adapted by: David Ball
Director: Saheem Ali
Scenic Design: Alexis Distler
Lighting Design: Oliver Wason
Costume Designer: Anne Kennedy
Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan
Choreography: Tracy Bersley

Cast (in alphabetical order):
Tartuffe's Man: Carlos Alcala
Elmire: Nemuna Ceesay
Tartuffe: Joey Collins
Mariane: April Mae Davis
Cléante: Rishan Dhamija
Orgon: Ray Dooley
Loyal/Flipote: David Fine
Officer: Alex Givens
Damis: Brandon Haynes
Madame Pernelle: Kathryn Hunter-Williams
Dorine: Shanelle Nicole Leonard
Tartuffe's Man: Connor Nielsen
Valere: Adam Poole