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by | Mar 1, 2024 | Review | 4 comments

Big chunks of this production of Father Tartuffe: An Indigenous Misadventure are boring. And there are elements that don’t work at all. But the underlying premise is so good and the bits that work are so uniquely rewarding that, despite the holes in it, this show mostly holds together.

In Molière’s original verse comedy, which premiered in 1664, a religious con man named Tartuffe ensnares a guy named Orgon and sets his sights on Orgon’s fortune, as well as his wife and daughter.

In Father Tartuffe, playwright Herbie Barnes puts a genius spin on this. In Barnes’s telling, which he sets on an Ojibway reserve in 1967, Orgon, who is now named Orin, and his family are Indigenous. He and his contemporaries were all imprisoned in residential schools, and they bear the scars. For Orin, that means that he wants to be white and he’s frighteningly susceptible to religious authority.

So Barnes’s adaptation has heft — and it takes some dark turns. To convince Orin that Tartuffe is a charlatan, Orin’s wife Elise and her allies hide Orin so he can watch as Tartuffe tries to seduce her. This set-up is still played mostly for laughs but, given the history of sexual assaults committed by religious figures against Indigenous people, this near rape comes with a grim shadow.

Make no mistake: Father Tartuffe also comes firmly armed with comedic resilience.

In Father Tartuffe, as in the work of Indigenous playwrights Tomson Highway and Kim Senklip Harvey, there’s a fantastically freewheeling embrace of theatrical artifice.

In a playful nod to the original, in Father Tartuffe, Orin’s mother speaks in rhyming couplets and insists that this is the proper, “white” way of talking. Other characters find themselves trapped in rhyme and struggle to get out of it.

When Tartuffe is trying to seduce Orin — their relationship is presented as homoerotic — he starts shedding his clothes and throws himself on the couch, extending his hand until his fingers almost touch Orin’s. In a sudden flash of light, we see that they’re recreating God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. So good. So surprising. We don’t see enough of this.

But not everything works.

The opening sequence, in which the characters sit and talk and talk and talk, is a theatrical desert.

And, under the direction of Quelemia Sparrow and Roy Surette, the performance style in this production is inconsistent.

To make this kind of comedy sing, you need performances that are energetic and inventive. You need to see the actors’ spin their characters’ eccentricities.

In this production, Frankie Cottrell, who’s playing Valant, a young guy who’s smitten with Orin’s daughter Maryanne, is very good at this. He’s all young love all the time, so he keeps the pace up and, when he finally tears himself away from Maryanne’s side on one of his exits, he closes the door, but there’s a window on the door and he presses his face against the glass so he can get one last look.

On the other hand, Sam Bob, who’s playing Orin and is, therefore, at the centre of the action, is out of his element. Bob can bring a clownish innocence to comic roles, and he does that in some moments here, but his characterization is fundamentally ungrounded. He almost always feels like an actor delivering his lines. And his delivery is hesitant.

Co-director Sparrow, who also appears as Elise, occupies an interesting middle ground. Her performance leans towards the naturalistic, so it doesn’t have a lot of comic energy, but her choices do yield some nuance: when Tartuffe is first declaring his lust for her, for instance, you can tell that Elise is both repelled and a little bit turned on by him.

Playing Orin’s best friend Cathy, Cheri Maracle embodies the confidence this material calls for. As Orin’s son Dennis, Braiden Houle gets the right level of attack but none of parodic commentary that this angry young character requires.

As Tartuffe, Aidan Correia fills the space with his energy and provides some inventive comic surprises. Samantha Alexander (Elise’s sister Darlene) and Danica Charlie (Maryanne) also deliver solid work. But the script doesn’t always support them. When Maryanne throws herself on the floor in despair, for instance, because she might have to marry Tartuffe, she’s delivering energy and commitment, but the script and production haven’t created enough tension to make the character’s response feels proportionate. Because the production’s stylistic choices are often out of whack, and, I suspect, because the script could use some editing, the cast never really gets a sustained roll going.

Still, playwright Barnes sticks the landing. I won’t reveal details of the ending, but I will say that it addresses colonialism and healing, and it’s very moving.

For me, this show was a bumpy ride, but I left the theatre feeing a fundamental level of gratitude.


FATHER TARTUFFE: AN INDIGENOUS MISADVENTURE by Herbie Barnes. Directed by Quelemia Sparrow and Roy Surette. On Thursday, February 29. Co-produced by the Arts Club Theatre and Touchstone Theatre. Running at the Granville Island Stage until March 24. Tickets

PHOTO CREDIT: I live for this stuff. (Photo of Sam Bob and Aidan Correia by Moonrider Productions. Lighting by Jillian White.)

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  1. Sue

    My husband and I have enjoyed many years of attending productions at the Arts Club. We were looking forward to this show, however, left halfway through. Very disappointed, felt it was not handled well. From the above review, perhaps we left a little prematurely, however, we felt it was poorly done, and somewhat distasteful. I do not feel it represented the Indigenous issues at all well, and did no do them justice!

  2. Bri

    I completely agree to the previous comment!! We left half way through as well… TERRIBLE.
    Extremely disappointed with the production on all levels.

  3. Alam Steeves

    We stayed for the entire play but wish we’d left early. The play was poorly acted and poorly put together. Generally we love the arts club productions but this one fell very short.

  4. Celia O’Neill

    Thank you Colin for great insights.


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