‘Tartuffe’ makes hay with the sunshine
Molière’s 17th-century satire of the Sun King’s France is designed to look like a day in the life of a religious hypocrite, from sunup to sundown
To light his production of “Tartuffe,” Molière’s 17th-century satire of religious hypocrisy, director Dominique Serrand had a bright idea. Why not make it look as if it’s happening in a single day, from sunrise to sunset?
That’s how it is unfolding at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall, where Serrand’s show is now playing after stints at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory.
The sun meticulously moves east to west, with the audience sitting where north would be. Changes are often imperceptible, imitating incremental shifts in daylight. Some lighting cues take forever to complete.
“We had a rule that we weren’t going to cheat,” says lighting designer Marcus Dilliard.
“Tartuffe” depicts a religious faker who takes over a gullible follower’s household from top to bottom. It was originally so controversial that Molière rewrote it several times, trying to overcome objections by religious censors and the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Serrand uses the word “brutal” to describe the play, and this dark version’s racy-looking ads feature a leering, peroxide-blond Steven Epp in a wardrobe-malfunction blatantly exposing his chest.
The West Coast press has called the production “fascinatingly sinister” and “relevant as ever, scarier than usual,” with Epp’s two-faced Tartuffe as a malevolent operator whom one reviewer likened to “House of Cards” schemer Frank Underwood.
“The religious extremists are getting stronger, from all sides,” Serrand says, explaining his attachment to the play. “It’s not extremists who are dangerous, but believers.”
Serrand ran Theatre de la Jeune Lune ( Theater of the New Moon) in Minneapolis until it closed in 2008, only three years after the organization had won the regional theater Tony Award. Epp, a longtime troupe member, played Tartuffe in 1999 and 2006 in a show that Serrand says was a response to the 1990s culture wars. This is essentially the same production, now generated by the Moving Company, a Minneapolis outfit created by Serrand and Epp after Jeune Lune’s demise.
To keep the “Tartuffe” lighting dynamic yet natural, the role of the set’s architecture is huge, Dilliard says. The design, by Serrand and Thomas Buderwitz, was partly inspired by the Parisian landmarks St-Gervais-et-St-Protais and the Hôtel National des Invalides. Soaring windows and tall columns dominate the set.
“This allowed us to separate the ways light would get in, to create shadows depending on time of day,” Serrand explains. “You never see the same light again. You never go back.”
The illusion of real time means that the performance clocks in reliably night in and night out. The first act, according to Serrand, is one hour and 28 minutes, give or take no more than a minute. “It’s pretty tight,” he says. Dilliard marvels at Serrand’s discipline, allowing deep shadows and repositioning actors rather than tweaking the lights. In each new theater, Dilliard says, “he’s put an incredible amount of time placing the actors according to where the light is.”
D.C.-based lighting assistant Max Doolittle joined the show for this local leg. “It’s so nice to do something honest,” he says. “Something that tries to exploit nature for drama, rather than just light for light’s sake.” Like Dilliard, he notes Serrand’s disinclination to call for a little extra illumination when an actor moves into a dim area: “It’s the first show I’ve done that hasn’t had any of that.”
“It’s really Dominique,” Dilliard says, “trying to give the play what he calls a different kind of muscle.”
The production of “Tartuffe” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall features an intricate lighting design. Above, a view of the stage at sunrise. In photos at right, director Dominique Serrand, in light-colored shirt, and lighting designerMarcus Dilliard take the stage to show how actors appear during the production’s different “times of day.”