Molière’s Tartuffe delivers a modern-day message amid plenty of laughs at the Laguna Playhouse

By MARRIE STONE

What do 17th century France and 21st century America have in common? More than you might think. Because while times, cultures and sensibilities change, human nature does not. And if we aren’t laughing at ourselves these days, we’ll likely end up crying.

Molière’s 1664 classic Tartuffe opens on the Laguna Playhouse stage this week, taking direct aim at our mortal foibles and perhaps subtle aim at some contemporary charlatans (think Bernie Madoff).

“We’re insisting on this being a period piece, as opposed to updating it or dressing the characters in ways to suggest certain correlations,” said actor Bruce Turk, who plays Tartuffe. “It enables the audience to use their imagination. It’s almost a 400-year-old play, but that fundamental dynamic is real. It was real back then. It’s real now.”

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Photos by Jason Niedle

(L-R) Bruce Turk and Bo Foxworth star in “Tartuffe”

If you’re unfamiliar with the storyline, a brief introduction. Tartuffe pretends to be a devout and pious man. In reality, he’s a dishonest conman who worms his way into a wealthy household, winning over the religious and gullible Orgon and his mother, Madame Pernelle. The rest of the family quickly sees through Tartuffe’s hypocrisy, baffled by how Orgon could be so blind. (The play makes many references to blindness throughout.)

Tartuffe sets his sights on marrying Orgon’s already betrothed daughter, a sure way to acquire the family funds. When Tartuffe’s true nature is ultimately revealed, Orgon careens to the other moral extreme, vowing now to destroy all pious men.

“Orgon is essentially going through a midlife crisis,” said Director Richard Baird. “Instead of buying the Jag, he’s looking for a spiritual leader. And Tartuffe slips right in.”

Getting a play like this made in 17th century France was no easy feat for Molière. Presenting a charlatan in priest’s clothing sent the church and the religious circles of Paris into an uproar. When it was first read in Versailles in 1665, a few devout leaders called for Molière’s execution.

“Going to church was quite a fad back then,” Baird said. “It was not quite like going to a club now, but it was considered quite hip to go to church. Everyone wore expensive clothes so they could show off how pious they were and one-up each other. That’s partly what Tartuffe capitalized on. So, the stakes of getting this play made back then were high.”

King Louie XIV banned Tartuffe for five years. Molière responded by writing two additional acts – new characters and additional scenes that reinforced Tartuffe’s hypocrisy – before the play could be staged.

“While Molière was struggling to get this play produced in the face of all the censorship, he was also writing Dom Juan, which is even more politically critical and worthy of excommunication,” said Turk. “Molière’s Dom Juan makes Tartuffe look tame by comparison.”

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(L-R) Shanté Deloach, Katei Karel and Jared Van Heel star in “Tartuffe”

For being more than 350 years old, nothing about Tartuffe is stuffy or inaccessible. Although written in verse, the language is approachable and, as Baird describes it, “buoyant” and “fizzy.”

“You don’t have to read a thesaurus or a bunch of history books to follow this play,” said Baird. “It’s quite clear and the running couplets are so delightfully light. They keep the ball in the air even if the topics they’re discussing are serious.”

This adaptation, translated by Richard Wilbur in 1950, was also no easy feat. “In French, Tartuffe is written in Alexandrine couplets, which are 12-beat lines. But that’s not our natural speech pattern in English. It’s two beats too many,” said Baird. Not only did Wilbur have to retain the humor, subject matter and relevance across time and culture, he had to retain the rhyming couplets, translated into English’s more natural 10-beat rhythm, all while avoiding sounding like Dr. Seuss (as both Turk and Baird pointed out was a risk).

“We really have Richard Wilbur to thank for the success of Molière in the English-speaking world today,” said Baird. “Before his hysterical and buoyant translations premiered, the English-speaking world had not yet embraced Molière. Now, Wilbur’s translations have inspired hundreds of other English translations.”

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Melanie Lora and Bruce Turk star in “Tartuffe”

Characters like Tartuffe are as old as humankind. So are the folks who fall prey to them. But this current moment in history – filled with disinformation and hypocrisy – puts the play in a new light. “In the past, I’ve wondered how these characters could be so blind,” Turk said. “But now I see these behaviors in the world and in my family. ‘You’re really giving money to that person when they go against all these things you profess? How can you be so blind?’ The play explores that, but in a very interesting way.”

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(L-R) Katie Karel, Jared Van Heel and Shanté Deloach

More important, it explores it in a very funny way. As Baird said, “There’s a lot of ham, but it’s ham on rye.”

Bruce Turk is joined on stage by Kandis Chappell as Mme. Pernelle, Shanté Deloach as Mariane, Rogelio Douglas III as Damis, Bo Foxworth as Orgon, Katie Karel as Dorine, Melanie Lora as Elmire, Kate Rose Reynolds as Flipote/Police Officer/Laurent, Jared Van Heel as Valere/M. Loyal and Christopher M. Williams as Cleante.

Tartuffe runs through Sunday, May 5. Performances will be Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. There will be added performances on Thursday, April 25 at 2 p.m. and Tuesday, April 30 at 7:30 p.m. There will be no performance on Sunday, May 5 at 5:30 p.m.

Tickets range from $45-$84. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit their website by clicking here.

Laguna Playhouse is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

For more information, visit https://lagunaplayhouse.com.


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