Tartuffe Opens Friday at Annie Russell Theatre

Veteran Broadway actor fights Parkinson’s disease as he directs Rollins’ second installment of the 2015–16 theatrical season.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

For Rollins students acting in the classic French comedy Tartuffe, speaking in rhyming couplets translated from a 17th-century playwright is difficult enough.

But that pales in comparison to the challenges faced by their director, veteran Broadway actor and Thomas P. Johnson Visiting Artist John Christopher Jones.

Jones, 67, who goes by Chris, has Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that makes rigorous even the simplest of movements. Armed with a sharp mind and decades of stage experience, however, Jones is ready to thrill audiences once more when Tartuffe opens 8 p.m. November 13 at the Annie Russell Theatre.

“A friend once told me, ‘If you’ve got to have any disease, Parkinson’s is a good one to have,” Jones says, his wide-eyed delivery emanating something of a hypnotic trance. “That way, you can keep contributing at 80 … 70 … 60 percent during later stages of life. And I’ve found that to be the case.”

Conflict On and Off the Stage

To put a modern spin on a timeless tale by Molière, Jones has set the play in the early 1930s. Tartuffe, the antagonist, is a two-faced charlatan who dupes a well-to-do gentleman into surrendering his home and daughter in the name of religion. Characters are split on whether Tartuffe is legit or up to no good.

Written in 1664 during the reign of Louis XIV, the play ran into opposition from the Catholic church and was banned in public—but that didn’t keep the Sun King from holding private showings, with many church officials in attendance, nonetheless. Tartuffe’s scandalous nature and political intrigue only increased its appeal, and the ban was eventually lifted in 1669.

Jones is quick to point out that the play was never meant to be an attack on true religion, as the evil Tartuffe— played by Matthew Striegel ’17—is nothing more than a con artist, a self-righteous wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“He’s not even a believer to start with,” Jones says. “He’s a televangelist.”

Director Has Family Ties to Rollins

Taking the lead on Tartuffe came naturally for Jones, a Manhattan resident who has directed the play in upstate New York and performed two of the lead roles. He’s also familiar with Rollins, as he directed Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile on campus a few years ago when his sister, Jennifer Jones Cavenaugh, was running the Annie. Cavenaugh, Winifred M. Warden Professor of Theater, is currently the interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Although Jones has held small parts on TV and the big screen over the years—from The Sopranos to Moonstruck—he’s primarily a live-stage actor whose credits include 12 Broadway and 24 Off Broadway shows. Among his biggest roles was playing the lead in the Tony Award-nominated Hurlyburly for six weeks on Broadway in 1985.

Slipping in and out of character, Jones has a penchant for reaching deep within his soul to rattle off eloquent monologues that both captivate and illustrate—a trait he’s gladly passing on to the next generation of thespians.

“I’ve been impressed with how skillful the students are in expressing the sophisticated language of Tartuffe,” Jones says. “I was worried that the kids wouldn’t be up to it. But these actors get this play, and I can’t wait for the audience to see it—because that’s where the evening’s going to live.

Tartuffe is scheduled for November 13, 14, 18, 19, 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. A 4 p.m. showing will be held November 15, as well as 2 p.m. November 21.

Tickets are $20, with discounts available for students and seniors.