“Faced with a fate so hideous and absurd,
Can you not utter one dissenting word?” —Dorine, II.iii
For our inaugural season, Perisphere Theater offered two relatively contemporary plays, with very small casts. This year, we take a leap into the classics with Moliere’s Tartuffe, the 17th century French farce. Part of our mission as a company is to produce material from all eras and styles “that expands the way D.C. audiences view the past, the present, and one another.”
This means that any play we produce must have—that overused word—“relevance.” At Perisphere, we believe that all great plays are relevant, because they speak to something universal about the human condition. But why produce a particular play at a particular time, and in a particular place?
Our vision statement specifies “D.C. audiences.” What is interesting about our work to D.C. audiences specifically? The District and the DMV have a population that is diverse, aware, politically savvy and active, and has high standards for the art it consumes.
Tartuffe is more than just a comedy with bubbly rhyming couplets. It is also a social satire that, viewed through the lens of 2018, needs no parallels drawn. A con man, Tartuffe, so wins over and befuddles the head of a household, Orgon, that nothing any of the family can say will sway Orgon from his devotion to his new idol. The experiences of his wife, children, brother-in-law, and the outspoken lady’s maid, Dorine, are all disregarded as lies.
In 2016, Oleanna and Copenhagen both spoke to the subjectivity of truth and perception, how difficult it often is to determine what has really happened and how it will affect everyone. But Tartuffe is about how the truth is absolutely discernable, and one can either see it or close one’s eyes to it. It’s obvious to the audience and to most of the characters in the play. Will the one holdout cease his willful blindness?
Directing through the lens of today
In another way, however, Tartuffe has themes similar to our first play, Oleanna. At any given time, who is being listened to? Who has the privilege of speaking? In our society, some (usually white men) may say and do what they like with automatic credibility. Others (usually women and people of color) have trouble being believed, even when the truth of what they say should be objectively obvious.
As directed by Bridget Grace Sheaff, the approach to the play explores how the title character spins lies to achieve his own goals, while those aware of the truth are not listened to when they raise their voices to object. Each character struggles not just with the hypocrisy and lies of Tartuffe, but with the blatant disregard for their voices by Orgon and Madame Pernelle. It is only when the reversal of the play has taken full effect that the bare, terrifying face of the truth is seen.
Yet the comedy prevails. The play ends in marriage. The King saves the day. The audience shares laughs along the way, as Moliere would have wanted. Sheaff’s approach asks, What can you do but laugh to keep yourself from crying?
Produced with a simple, “classical contemporary” design concept, our production will not be an overt allegory for our 2018 political climate. Tartuffe is worth doing for many reasons as a brilliant piece of playwriting, but its inherent tie-ins to our current landscape of upheaval also make this a play for right now.
Who is being heard? Ultimately, will the voices of reason prevail and the family become whole again?
Tartuffe runs Jan. 25–Feb. 4 at Capital Fringe.