Great art does more than endure. It speaks to us in constant vitality.
A great playwright will soon reach out to contemporary Mobile from across an ocean and 350 years. All you have to do is wander into Joe Jefferson Playhouse (11 S Carlen St.) mid January to hear him.
The troupe’s production of Molière’s notorious “Tartuffe” breathes life into a comedy that scandalized pre-Enlightenment France when it first emerged in 1664. But don’t expect pantaloons and capes.
“When people think of classic works, of Shakespeare or things like that, they think of it as dry. I wanted to make this accessible for contemporary audiences, for them to be entertained,” director Timothy Guy said.
That’s why Guy gave the tale of a con man in religious guise a relatable veneer. It was easy considering the high drama at hand.
“The staging, though, isn’t Restoration comedy style. I’m updating it to the 1980s and making it like a nighttime soap opera in the style of ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas.’ Our costumes are more updated and some of the prop music we use is of that era but our main characters are very ‘Joan Collins.’”
Guy didn’t have to worry about doing the translation from the original French. JJP’s version is the 1963 translation by Pulitzer-winning poet Richard Wilbur, who retained the iambic pentameter. According to some of the actors, Guy only had to update a few tiny things about technology to make it easier on modern sensibilities.
He’s also taken a somewhat post-modern approach to give it a wider scope. Other periods of the 20th century are present in various characters.
“It’s set in the ‘80s nonspecifically, but the brother-in-law is kind of an old hippie. I’ve got a James Dean-type who is rooted in the ‘50s. I’ve got ‘Men In Black’ law enforcement who are more modern, someone who references the Roaring ‘20s for a young girl, but there’s no ultra-specific time period for their costumes. They just kind of reference that,” Guy said.
Considering this is the region that gave birth to Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the character of Tartuffe should ring familiar. He was controversial enough to elicit outrage from a French archbishop and censor from King Louis XIV when the play originally premiered.
“Tartuffe is a criminal, you find out at the end, who has disguised himself as a very pious man, then weaseled his way into this family. He’s referencing that kind of televangelist preacher in his dress. He’s very seersucker and light and Southern and holy,” Guy said.
Putting the play together has been a bit of a challenge. It’s only been nine weeks since auditions and rehearsals had to dance around the holiday season, so Guy feels fortunate he found seasoned community theater veterans eager for the challenge. It left time to work on things other than mere line memorization.
“What we work on so much in the rehearsal process are the relationships. How the daughter feels about her dad and how the wife feels about Tartuffe or the son-in-law,” Guy said. “But everything is a little heightened so we set it in that soap-opera milieu. The family is fraught with problems throughout, so that’s what it’s about, the absurdity.”
The classic work was a first for Guy as well. He knew the material only from an academic perspective.
“When the committee asked me about it, I was familiar with the title but I had never seen a production of it. I read it 30 years ago as a young theater student, so the challenge was to take all that poetry and make it clear for a contemporary audience to get the gist of it,” Guy said.
Two months before auditions, he pored over the work. It was there he set out the details of staging, its setting, the colors used, the music and so on.
“Tartuffe” runs Jan. 15-30. Friday and Saturday curtain is at 8 p.m. Sunday matinee is at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $20, $15 for seniors and military, and $10 for students. For more info, call 251-471-1534 or go to joejeffersonplayers.com.
“I think the magic of Molière is its timelessness. It’s really about a family, a dad, a stepmother and two kids, and his mother that have been taken in by this hypocrite,” Guy said. “It’s unbelievable at times because of his behavior, like a seduction scene where Tartuffe tries to hit on the wife behind the husband’s back. It doesn’t matter that it was written back then because it relates to today’s world.”