Monday, May 5, 2014

The Dark Underbelly of Molière’s "Tartuffe"

SCR's 1964 production of Tartuffe.
In 1664—350 years ago—Molière’s Tartuffe opened in France and was immediately censored, causing a five year firestorm and several rewrites until its eventual run (for more about the controversy surrounding the original production, peek into our program). In 1964, SCR Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson directed a production of Tartuffe under the auspices of the newly created theatre company that he founded with David Emmes. An hour or so long, the piece was based in commedia dell’arte and used masks. Instead of stirring up trouble, Tartuffe was the first in a long line of successes for a small company that grew into the South Coast Repertory of today.

Fifty years later, SCR concludes the celebration of its landmark season by revisiting Tartuffe. In true SCR style, we aren’t content to rest on our laurels and present the easy version of an historical classic, but are approaching it with fresh eyes and interpretation.

The story remains the same. This dark comedy follows Tartuffe, a clever man who knows how to work every angle. A family watches in astonishment as Orgon, the head of the household, falls under Tartuffe’s spell of ideal piety. With beautiful women like Elmire and Mariane in the family, it’s difficult for Tartuffe to keep his thoughts turned toward heaven. Tartuffe's always got his eye on a prize and knows how to play the gamebut will he win in the end?

Director Dominique Serrand has been working to perfect his vision of Tartuffe since 1998, in collaboration with adapter David Ball. Serrand’s approach to Tartuffe emphasizes the fanaticism and zealotry inherent in Tartuffe’s manipulation of Orgon and employs judicious use of religious iconography.

Serrand’s darker and layered approach to the play, rather than treating it as a simple French farce, is at the forefront of a more nuanced view of Tartuffe. Julia Prest, in her book Controversy in French Drama: Molière’s Tartuffe and the Struggle for Influence, notes that “Modern directors have, even as they have allowed themselves to stray from Molière’s original text and content, in fact perceived something that has been paid less attention by scholars but that I shall argue was present in the Tartuffe controversy all along: a simultaneous condemnation of fanaticism (or in seventeenth century parlance, zealotry) as well as hypocrisy.”

Tartuffe set rendering , designed by Dominique Serrand and adapted for SCR's stage with Tom Buderwitz.
SCR’s production of Tartuffe has an interesting history and presented some unique challenges. Serrand has mounted this adaptation twice before, in 1998 and 2006, in theatre spaces that are very different from South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage. Serrand designed the sets for those productions, and for this outing he partnered with longtime SCR set designer Tom Buderwitz to to realize his vision. They are re-imagining the feeling of the original production—a monolithic set that evokes the atmosphere of a house of worship—with imposing walls surrounding the stage that dwarf the actors. This newly remounted production is a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Shakespeare Theatre Company and, after its run at SCR, will travel to those theatres, which also have different stage footprints. Buderwitz and Serrand worked to create a set that is adaptable and scalable, so the walls will come apart to allow for expansion and contraction in Berkeley and Washington, D.C.

Costume rendering for Elmire by Sonya Berlovitz.
Costume designer Sonya Berlovitz worked on the previous productions of Tartuffe with Serrand and is has returned to reinvent the elegant and occasionally anachronistic 17th-century costumes. Her designs incorporate the feeling of the period, while exaggerating the lines and excess, appropriate for a comedy that is also tragic in its content. The sound design by Cory Carillo is based on Serrand’s original sound design, with rich and complex music, often using opera to underscore and heighten the dramatic action of the play. The design team is completed with lighting design by Marcus Dilliard.

Ultimately, Serrand’s approach and the supporting production elements serve to highlight the darker underbelly of Molière’s text. The religious imagery is juxtaposed with bold depictions of Tartuffe's worldly appetites, and Serrand gives full value to the tragic implications of Organ's single-minded devotion to the hypocrite, Tartuffe.  Of course, like life, there are still many moments of laughter, even when it is a laugh born out of desperation.

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