I typically like to think of myself as someone well informed about the world of DC’s Indie Theatre Community, so it came as a shock to me that I’d completely missed the formation of Perisphere in 2014, and now I’m seeking to remedy my error.
Produced by Perisphere Theater
January 25 – February 4, 2018
Details and tickets
The troupe seeks to “produce moving, thought-provoking productions that raise questions and shed light on human fears and foibles even as they entertain, while respecting the unique vision and style of the playwright while providing for creative artistic choices in presenting the work.” To that end, it’s almost no surprise that their upcoming theatrical offering is one of the french farces that has withstood the ever-grueling test of time: Tartuffe.
A farce at its core, Tartuffe, when it originally premiered, sparked a great controversy among the Roman Catholic Church in France, who essentially threatened excommunication to anyone who produced, performed in, or watched the show. This original version of Tartuffe would be lost to time after its ban, reappearing as “L’Imposteur” and finally, its final form: Le Tartuffe. The play itself resonates with the mission and, to an extent, even the name of Perisphere (the timeless symbol from the 1939 New York World’s Fair).
With these in mind, I spoke with director Bridget Grace Sheaff, designers Randi Young (Costumes) and Niusha Nawab (Sound), as well as actors Steve Lebens (Orgon), and Jasmine Jones (Dorine)
Will this be a modernization, set in a more recent time period, or holding to the period of the piece?
Bridget Grace Sheaff: We are keeping the lens of the play in its classical context, but we are not ignoring the reality of performing this play in 2018. The design team and I have structured the elements of the world to reflect both the sensibilities and mindset of the original time period while also contextualizing and updating the frame for our modern world view. After all, it is a 17th century French play, translated into English by an American in 1963, performed in 2018 by 2018 people, bodies, and opinions. While we have to respect and harken to the time the play was written, we also have to shift our gaze to our current world and highlight what we see here and now.
What’s your approach to directing and staging farce?
Bridget: I am looking for all opportunities for super-sized comedy, or deep-dish comedy, or a side of comedy, or other food metaphors. The menu says “farce” so comedy is an ingredient one way or another. As a director, my approach to comedy is “go big and then go home.” There’s no “or” there. We find the biggest moments, we suss them out, pat them down, shake them down for loose change, and then we remember what the heart of the story is and what is really at stake.
If it serves the heart of the story, it stays. If it distracts, bloviates, skews, or flattens what we are trying to say, we turn around and try again. We (actors, director, designers, playwright, translator) are all trying to put our finger on the play at the same time, and when we do that successfully, we are at home in the play. When something doesn’t feel right, we’re not at home yet. It’s only in taking those big risks, in trying our most extreme options, that we find our comfort spot (which, let me tell you, sometimes can be a very uncomfortable place to be). Go big and, then, go home.
What have been some of the highlights of the rehearsal process for you?
Bridget: Every day I come into a rehearsal room with tenacious, energetic, creative, vulnerable actors. They take risks. They admit what they do not know. They let me talk at them for WAY too long about the intricacies of French drama. They are the story. They are the light of it. I could not be happier to work with them.
What are some influences that are guiding your work?
Niusha Nawab: The majority of my design is composed of classical music to give a loose sense of the time period. The music I’m using will date from the 1600’s-1900’s but will all fit into the classical super-genre, giving a unified feel to the show. The reason it’s mostly music is to create the mood of a farce by underscoring the emotions of each scene in a way that is mildly melodramatic and even comical.
Randi Young: When it comes to period plays, all inspiration starts with research, and let me tell ya–researching 17th century France was an adventure. Everything was grand and poofy and flamboyant and lush while Louis XIV was in power. And surprisingly, the men were much fancier than the women. After weeks of staring at painting after painting of the French bourgeoisie, I began to notice similar lines in the clothing of today. Off-the-shoulder tops for women. Longline jackets for men. I’ve always known that fashion repeats itself, but I never knew that we’d go as far back as the late 1600s! But I’m glad we did because seeing the day-to-day dress of my peers made me realize how I’d design this show.
How do you plan to go about building the world of Tartuffe?
Randi: To build the world of Tartuffe, I wanted there to be a divide in the costumes that mimics the divide in the characters: those who believe Tartuffe and those who see right through his lies. The believers would be in typical period dress. The non-believers would be in modern clothes that follow the 17th century silhouette. In doing so, I seek to create teams of people in which, respectively, the audience has a hard time relating to and can relate to with ease.
Niusha: The image of the world will be based on the set and costumes creating the loose structural look of the 1600’s but also indicating more modern aesthetics. My plan is to use the music to tie the metaphorical ribbon on this general design concept by using music that varies in era but fits into the same genre.
What about you actors there: who do you play and hat’s been your entryway into the world of this character?
Jasmine Jones: I play Dorine. I’m a LOT like Dorine, haha, sassy, honest, I love hard, and I have little to no tolerance in my personal life for folks who put on a front vs. be who they really are. Due to that, the biggest challenge in playing her in 2018 is remembering I’m a servant first and foremost, and remembering to show the characters above Dorine’s status an adequate amount of deference.
Steve Lebens: I play Orgon. I’m returning to the world of Moliere and his characters after having played M. Argan in The Imaginary Invalid in school. Many of the characters in Tartuffe have their counterparts in The Imaginary Invalid and interestingly, Orgon and Argan are quite similar in that they are the patriarchs of their families, under the influence of charlatans who are after their money and frustrated with the relationships that they have with their wives and children.
I’ve also taken inspiration for playing Orgon after having just played a set of 17th century French characters in Lauren Gunderson’s Emilie, the Marquise du Chatlet Defends her Life Tonight at WSC. Although set 100 years earlier, the world of Tartuffe is very familiar to the world of Emilie in the structure of French society and social customs.
What’s one of your favorite moments of the show or in rehearsal?
Steve: A great moment for me in the rehearsal process so far was when the director and I discovered a bit of physical comedy that works perfectly for the scene where Orgon finally sees the truth of what has been going on around him. I won’t spoil things by describing the bit that we worked into the scene, but I think it’s a great melding of modern sensibilities with the intent of Moliere at that moment.
Jasmine: *SPOILER ALERT* – The moment when Mariane, who I helped raise/is like a little sister to me, finally stands up to her father near the end. It’s so powerful to both and to me to see this character, who wasn’t necessarily written to come off as the “sharpest tool in the shed”, speak so eloquently in her plea to Orgon.
What are some challenges of stepping into the heightened language of Moliere?
Steve: Working with rhyming couplets is tricky. The challenge is to keep it as natural as possible – as close to sounding like the person is talking to a member of his family, while still observing the structure of the meter in the verse, as well as heightening one’s diction so that the audience will understand every word. It’s a lot of fun, really. And I hope the work pays off with a show that audiences find is funny and fun.
Jasmine: Honestly, I’m a massive grammar/English nerd lol, so I love the language! The rhyming couplets have made memorizing these lines easier for me, and the vocabulary Richard Wilbur used in translating this is just beautiful.
What about this play is resonant with today’s audiences?
Bridget: The underlying tension in Tartuffe is about what we believe and who we believe in, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Orgon turns a blind eye to his family’s protests against the titular character, placing his hopes firmly on the shoulders of a fraud. It feels redundant to pull out the parallels to a 2018 audience.
Further than that, when the evidence is presented time and time again of Tartuffe’s disloyalty and downright aggression, the women of the play have the burden of proof. In the wake of #MeToo and the seemingly constant unearthing of sexual harassment stories in the media, how could we not put this story center stage?
But there’s a deeper drive in the play, one of good intentions gone awry. Orgon truly believes he is doing what is best for his family when he invites Tartuffe to live with them. He believes he is saving their souls. His fatal flaw comes from his repeated disregard for their true needs, assuming that he knows what is best for them. His trust was misplaced. His guidance is skewed. His intentions started out noble. Good intentions, however, quickly turn ill in the face of willful ignorance. It’s a lesson which we can all learn.