WSU theater students put on 'Tartuffe'

The story of a two-faced hustler took center stage in the Browning Center’s Allred Theater last Friday as Weber State University’s theater department debuted its spring show, “Tartuffe.”

“Tartuffe is the name of the main character, and for a long time it was actually synonymous with a con man,” said Jennifer A. Kokai, the director of the show.

Kokai, a new theater professor at WSU this year, was unexpectedly given the play to direct from another professor. She took the show, a classic French comedy written by Moliere, and gave it a Southern twist by turning it into a post-Civil War medicine show.

“What you would have is people would pull into town in a wagon, and they’d do all kinds of different entertainment and singing and dancing,” Kokai said. “They would do a free show and try to sell people patent medicines.”

The idea sprung from a joke about setting the “Tartuffe” show in a wagon. When the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival took place several weeks ago on campus, it crossed into the cast’s rehearsal schedule, making them unable to have a large set. After Kokai aligned the theme of a medicine show with the “Tartuffe” characters, a Southern dialect was adapted into the original plotline, and the show was created.

The cast and crew also added live music and dancing, and passed out popcorn and their own medicine brand, named Draught of Dionysus, to the audience before and after the shows.

“That’s kind of what we’re playing with,” Kokai said. “We’re imagining that the actors are coming to town with the goal of selling you medicine, and they’re doing ‘Tartuffe’ as a way of bringing you in to sell them to you.”

When rich gentleman Orgon takes in Tartuffe, a slick swindler wearing the mask of a pious beggar, he’s blinded by the man’s charms while his entire family is shaken by Tartuffe’s scheming ways. Orgon promises to wed his daughter Marianne to Tartuffe, even after she’s already been promised to the youth Valere, in order for divine blessings to fall on his household. Quite the opposite happens as Tartuffe makes advances toward Orgon’s wife behind his back and plans to blackmail him out of his house.

“It’s about getting swindled and false appearances, I guess, and that’s something we’ve all dealt with in our lives,” said B.J. Whimpey, a WSU theater senior who plays the lead role of Tartuffe. “Someone acts one way to your face, but behind your back, they’re completely different, and that’s basically what Tartuffe is.”

Whimpey said he enjoyed working with Kokai and her new vision for “Tartuffe.” He said she let the cast create its own humorous details naturally, as it coincided with her overall vision.

“Every single person brings something different to this show, and every single person is dedicated,” Whimpey said. “Every time everyone’s on stage, I’m just wowed by the talent in our department and how people change and grow and become better. I’m proud of every single person that’s cast, and I’d love to work with them 100 times again.”

The show also featured student talent behind the scenes, including another WSU senior, Sean Bishop, who starred in last semester’s big show, “Xanadu,” but acted this semester as the main costume designer for “Tartuffe.”

“I was going to graduate last year, and doing ‘Tartuffe’ was one of the things that kept me here,” Bishop said.

Bishop stayed for an extra fifth year after being offered to costume the show. He said he believes it was challenging keeping to the director’s vision and also finding a way of incorporating himself and everyone else into the collaborative process.

“It’s been good for me to do this and stay, because it’s given me confidence to know that I can do this,” Bishop said.

Bishop said this was the first show with a specific period he has attempted to costume.

“I’ve been looking at some opportunities, and I feel a year ago I probably wouldn’t have been ready to do that,” Bishop said. “But I look at some shows that are coming up in the next year that will be out in the community, and I feel confident enough to apply for those jobs.”

Audience members said they enjoyed the Southern adaptation to the classic French humor.

“I’ve read (the play), so I thought it was a really cool interpretation since it’s (originally) in French,” said Maria Leon, a WSU student who attended the show opening. “It’s kind of relatable to see people who are deceived pretty easily, and it opens people’s eyes to con artists and televangelists and what not.”

The show will be running March 2-3 and 6-10 at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on March 10. Tickets are $11, or $8 for WSU students at all shows. They are available in advance at the Dee Events Center, 1-800-WSU-TIKS, or at the door beginning one hour before the performance.

“Right now we’re in an election period where people are talking about who they are and what they stand for, but we are very cynical about our politicians,” Kokai said. “So the idea that there are people out there like Tartuffe who promise us great things, but they might be trying to fool us — that’s something we’re concerned about and can relate to.”