By Alison Rooney
A well-regarded comedic playwright, a favorite of the government, surprises his audience with something controversial. His latest play, while extremely funny—farcical, even, at times—targets religious hypocrisy. Not religion overall, but religious hypocrisy, sycophants and the ability to be misled. The powers that be, while actually acknowledging the value of the work, are threatened by it and ban it. The playwright networks covertly with his eager fans, and the work is presented secretly, eventually winning favor, once again, with the government, which changes course and sanctions performances.
This scenario is quite possibly taking place in any number of places round the globe right now, and also took place in France, at court fíªtes in Versailles, to be specific, in 1664, when Molií¨re’s play, Tartuffe, was presented to King Louis XIV. Although immediately acclaimed, prominent religious groups dubbed it “anti-religion” and “an instrument of the devil” and the work was banned, secretly re-written, banned again, and finally, in 1669, welcomed back. The universality and appeal of Tartuffe, through generations and across geographic boundaries, has been amply shown through its lasting popularity and frequent productions.
Director Stephanie Hepburn happened to be listening to a radio version, a BBC broadcast, of a new translation of Tartuffe by Liverpudlian poet Roger McGough, when she started laughing out loud at his “fresh take on things and very modern colloquialisms.” In a review of the new text, Lynne Walker of The Independent writes: “McGough demonstrates a finely tuned ear for the rhythms of dialogue and the flavour of patois…and jargon. The result is tart but never tough…In their zest and wit, McGough’s lines, sometimes deliciously set up, at other times sprung on us with a mischievous artlessness, set a cracking pace.”
Hearing this new language set Hepburn’s mind spinning as to what period and setting would mesh best with this fresh language. “Even though McGough did his production in period style there’s a lot of modern language mixed in with classical, rhyming couplets and other types of verse. In setting the decade there’s also an innocence in the script; young people didn’t kiss until engaged. The 1960s and 70s came to mind. But the biggest decision was where to place the play. There are references to top-secret break-ins in the Republic [of France], so I thought of Watergate, but if I did that, the French jokes wouldn’t work. I then thought of the early 60s, before free love. I would have loved to have set it in Garrison, but I just couldn’t let the French aspect go. Then I thought of Monaco. We could pinpoint it to Prince Rainier being the king, but then again by doing that we would cut some of the universality out. So now we’ve set it in the 60s era of pop art and lava lamps. Molií¨re is poking fun of the culture of his time; we decided on a set which pokes fun at the 1960s.” Set designer Dana Kenn is busy painting some large pop-art pictures (including one mock-Warhol already completed of actress Nancy Larsen — see the photo), and other artwork redolent of the period will be hung from the lighting grid above the set.
Hepburn has made some other adjustments, getting rid of some of the time lapses, which contributed to the original being performed in five acts. Now, according to Hepburn, “all the acts flow together and the entire play takes place on a very long day.” All of the flats generally used at the Depot Theatre to mask entrances and exits are gone from this production, which uses the entire space, including the side section which occasionally serves as additional seating. In keeping with the original tenor of the text, the play does have its serious moments, and Hepburn is resisting the urge to take any of these out, calling Tartuffe “at its heart a play about religious hypocrisy.”
The cast is a mixture of those who have performed previously at the Depot, and some new to it. Hepburn has a BA and MA in theater and has been an adjunct professor of speech at SUNY Westchester since 1997. For seven years she was the artistic director of the Peekskill Repertory Theater at the Paramount Art Center. As an actress, she has appeared at the Depot in Nunsense, Harley Holmes and Arsenic and Old Lace. Hepburn is eager for audiences to hear this new translation, feeling that even if one is familiar
with Tartuffe, this is something which feels entirely new. So the tale whose description reads, in the words of the City Theater of Austin, which produced a [different translation] version of it recently: “Under the cloak of religious piety, the lecherous, menacing, arch-hypocrite title character schemes to marry his benefactor’s daughter, seduce his wife, then defraud him of all he possesses. Does the scoundrel succeed? Take your seat and find out in this new and exciting adaptation of one of the world’s greatest comedies.”
Hepburn has enjoyed the rehearsal process, saying “I do believe that if you have 10 actors, they will play the role in 10 different ways. I like to see what the actor brings to the table first and use what I see them do to color their version of the play, rather than by being dead set on doing it as I want to do.” These 10 actors are: Andre Herzegovitch, Nancy Larsen, Jake Carlisle, Jim Conrad, Joe Carlisle, Hannah Friedman, Angus Hepburn, Nancy Swann, ZsuZsa Mann and Matt Rowe. Donald Kimmel is designing the lighting, Tyler Mell is running lights/sound and Nancy Larsen is the show’s producer.
Tartuffe runs from Feb. 18 to March 6, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for children and seniors, and are available by calling the box office at 845-424-3900 or visiting www.philipstowndepottheatre.org.
Photos by A. Rooney