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Tartuffe (or The Imposter) by Molière (1622-73) cheerfully skewers blind faith and religious hypocrisy. Written in 1664, this classic French comedy was officially banned from public performance by King Louis XIV until 1669. (Warning: Molière's comic brickbats will make some self-appointed ayatollahs of the Religious Right — and conmen of all stripes — squirm!)
Burning Coal Theatre Company's script for Tartuffe will be former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur's translation. Emma Griffin, the artistic director of the critically acclaimed, OBIE Award winning Salt Theatre in New York City, will direct the show. Griffin's version of Tartuffe will be set in the 1950s and performed in the round.
"I think I must have read this play in my Freshman Theater 101 class," Griffin says, "but it was not until I saw a production of the play about three years ago that it made an impression on me. I was stunned by how dynamic and well structured it was. I'd never worked on Tartuffe (or any Molière play, for that matter), and I was delighted when Burning Coal gave me the opportunity."
She adds, "Tartuffe is about a con man — the title character (David Henderson) — who uses religious piety to weasel his way into the home of a very gullible wealthy gentlemen, Orgon (Rick Lonon). Tartuffe schemes to wed Orgon's daughter, Marianne (Anne Cole), despite Orgon's having already promised Marianne to her beloved, Valere (Adam Patterson); [to bed Orgon's] wife, Elmire (Elizabeth London); and [to] take over possession of [Orgon's] estate.
"Elmire, along with her maid, Dorine (Liz Beckham); her hot-headed son, Damis (Stephen LeTrent); and Orgon's clear thinking brother, Cleante (George Jack), stands opposed to this plan," Griffin notes. "They plot Tartuffe's downfall by using his own ego and arrogance as a weapon against him. That plot fails, however, when Tartuffe produces a document Orgon signed granting him full possession of the estate.
"Just as all are about to be ejected into the streets," Griffin explains, "a beatific hero appears to set things straight. The cast also includes Orgon's mother, Mme. Pernell (Bob Barr); Laurent (Greg Paul), a messenger; the servant Flipote (also Mr. Paul); and M. Loyal, a collection agent (Michael O'Foghludha)."
Updating Tartuffe to the 1950s presents sizable challenges for director Emma Griffin and her creative team, which includes set designer Jennifer Mann-Becker, lighting designer Christopher Popowich, costume designer Maggie Clifton, and sound designer Rick LaBach.
"With any play that is hundreds of years old," Emma Griffin claims, "you must find a way to make it vital and modern. So for us, we had to find our way in — our reason for doing Tartuffe, now, in 2003. Luckily, the reason that Tartuffe has survived for hundreds of years is because it's fantastically good — it remains marvelously complex and challenging, and hypocrisy is never out of style."
Griffin adds, "We're doing the show in the round. It's [the 1950's] — with very cool colors, very elegant and clean." She says the set features "a table, a couple of low chairs, and a really big chandelier!" The lighting is "very French — cool and sharp!" and the costumes are "50s chic, with LOTS of color!" Griffin says.
"Tartuffe is a dark and delicious comedy, full of the follies of human nature," says Emma Griffin. "It's bursting with wit and pizzazz, yet the undercurrents of lust, greed, and power never let the play become frivolous."
She adds, "The greatest aspect of this play is that it is so easily, effortlessly, beautifully theatrical. Molière was a theater genius — he was a performer, a director, a producer, and a playwright. He had a deep understanding of what worked on a stage; and his plays are masterpieces of well-constructed, dynamic, and surprising theatrical narratives.
"Tartuffe is a delight to perform and a joy to direct," Griffin insists. "For any director, to have a play that has such rich relationship to the form is always a treat — you feel that you are working with a master."
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Tartuffe Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 30-Feb. 1 and Feb. 6-8 and 13-15, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 2, 9, and 16, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theatre in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 South St., Raleigh, NC. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except "pay-what-you-can" matinee Feb. 2. (NOTE: The Feb. 1 performance will be sign-language interpreted and audio described for the visually impaired.) 919/388-0066. http://www.burningcoal.org/tartuffe%20page.htm.