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Off the Wall opens season with Molière’s ‘Tartuffe’

Vice that masquerades as virtue is the stuff of which comedies and revolutions are made — one usually funnier than the other.

Sometimes you’re lucky enough to get both in a single package. Few comedies are as rich as those of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Molière, and fewer of those are as revolutionary as Tartuffe, the 17th-century French playwright’s greatest work. 

Off the Wall Theatre will stage a new verse translation of the play to open its 2015–16 season, beginning Sept. 17.

Molière’s tale of a religious charlatan who domineers and directs the life of an influential gentleman to the point of distraction (if not near-destruction) is rife with comedic situations, according to artistic director Dale Gutzman, who crafted this translation. But its underlying social implications are as relevant today as in 1664. 

“The play is a close look at a family falling apart because the father feels that his life is meaningless and he needs to embrace a fake religious leader,” says Gutzman, who has twice before directed productions of Tartuffe. “Just watch certain television channels today and you can see the foolish people sending in money to TV preachers.”

Religious zeal is a dangerous tool in the wrong hands, Gutzman adds, and extremists of any kind who use religion to justify their selfish aims pose a distinct threat both to individuals and society.

The play revolves around Orgon (Randall Anderson), blinded by his admiration for Tartuffe (David Flores), a pious fraud who has gained significant influence over him. However, Orgon’s wife Elmire (Jacqueline Roush) and other family members easily see through Tartuffe’s charade and work together to engineer his undoing, saving Orgon and the household in the process.

Tartuffe, also known as The Imposter and The Hypocrite, proved popular in Molière’s day, and controversial.

Even though he is purported to have enjoyed the inaugural production, French monarch Louis XIV censored the play, most likely at the behest of the archbishop of Paris, also the king’s confessor. The topic of religious virtue and the portrayal of the dark side of a self-described religious devotee, it seemed, struck a little too close to home for church leaders.

In fact, history notes, the archbishop threatened excommunication for anyone associated with productions of Tartuffe, including members of the audience. Molière protested and the play’s revolutionary stance in face of the church’s demands helped seal its place in theater history.

Gutzman hopes his translation will bring more life to the proceedings than the standard Richard Wilbur translation, the most common one used in America.

“In America, we have been anchored by Richard Wilbur’s lovely, but very outdated, stiff and conservative translation, which is very far from Moliere’s theater,” Gutzman says. “The Victorian Age and the early part of this century did much damage to classic works by cleaning them up, and we have drifted away from the raw, earthy fun of many classical pieces.”

Gutzman also updated the action to modern-day Paris, a step that makes the play more accessible to audiences and demonstrates that the scenario’s themes and issues aren’t relics of the past.

“I have created a new modern verse translation, sticking quite close to Molière and the kinds of things he would have wanted to emphasize,” Gutzman says. “His play was banned twice for its controversial content and he was forced to rewrite it. So the show is not only very, very funny, but quite potent.”

In addition to the undue influence of false religion, Tartuffe addresses women’s rights and criticizes the social caste system, which Gutzman insists is all too prevalent an influence even in today’s media-rich society. The classics are classics for a reason, he adds, emphasizing the importance of the themes at play in what may be Molière’s most famous work.

“The lessons of the play concern what is truly important in life,” Gutzman explains, ”and the respect and care we must take for each other.”

ON STAGE 

Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Molière’s Tartuffe runs Sept. 17-27 at 127 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. For more information and tickets, call 414-484-8874 or visit offthewalltheatre.com.

Off the Wall’s Coming Season

Beginning with Tartuffe, Off the Wall Theatre is offering a rich and varied season of comedy, drama and points in between.

Grand Guignol, based on famous French theater works of horror and suspense, will give four directors the chance to raise goosebumps with short tales of suspense. The seasonally appropriate production runs Oct. 29 through Nov. 8.

Comedy kicks back in with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sondheim’s 1962 musical set in ancient Rome. Chuckle your way through the year-end holidays with productions running Dec. 16-31.

Things get serious again with Hamlet, considered by many William Shakespeare’s finest work. The story of the melancholy Dane, based on director Peter Brook’s 2000 production, takes to the boards March 4-20.

OTW ends its season with Everything in the Garden, Edward Albee’s rarely performed and very dark comedy that opens with an innocent question: “Where did all the money come from?” Find out for yourself April 28 to May 8.

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