‘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

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY NEL­SON PRESS­LEY PHO­TOS BY BILL O’LEARY nel­son.press­ley@wash­post.com Tartuffe Through July 5 at Sid­ney Har­man Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tick­ets: $20-$110. 202-547-1122. www.shake­spearethe­atre.org.

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.”

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