After a year in hibernation, ‘Tartuffe’ returns

Tom Roche (ORGON), Connor Johnson (TARTUFFE), Ethan Hernandez (DAMIS). Photo credit: Todd Collins

After over a year in hibernation, “Tartuffe” will reach its audience on May 5, 2021. Originally scheduled to open in March of 2020, the production has been revived, re-staged and prerecorded for online streaming. “I’m still in shock we were able to pull this off,” said Robert Scott Smith, assistant professor, director of “Tartuffe” and co-head of the U’s Actor Training Program. “It’s nearly two weeks after the last day of filming and I can’t quite believe it.”

“Tartuffe” is a rarity: a classic that is not only still funny but achingly relevant. With a plot that hits every comedic note between subtle and slapstick, its satirical take on the relationship between wealth, power and faux-religious hypocrisy has aged better over the last four centuries—and the last year—than anyone could have hoped.

“Coming back to ‘Tartuffe’ a year later with one week to get it back on its feet, adding in new actors and having to navigate safety concerns was quite an accomplishment,” said Smith. “We just didn’t have the time to second-guess ourselves. I relied heavily on the students. Our stage managers, production team and actors showed up prepared and ready to give it their all.”

Before filming could start, the university had to approve a strict safety plan. “For two weeks prior to the first rehearsal, our company were asked to commit to a ‘work’ quarantine, which continued until the last day,” said Smith. Other required safety measures included bi-weekly COVID testing, no live audience members and minimal production crew (all of whom remained masked and distanced throughout). Although the lack of an audience was disappointing, it allowed for more flexibility during filming; each scene could be performed and shot multiple times from multiple angles. Almost eleven and a half hours of footage is currently being edited down to the final two-hour runtime.

Olivia Buck (MARIANE), Max Villa (CLEANTE), Em Smiley (MME PERNELLE), Tristian Osborne (VALERE), Shelice Warr (ELMIRE), Ethan Hernandez (DAMIS). Photo credit: Todd Collins

All of that explains the “how,” but what about the “why?” What does a 17th-century comedy with rhyming dialogue have to offer modern audiences? For one thing, the story doesn’t need much updating. In “Tartuffe,” the title character—a con man posing as a holy man—brilliantly sleazes his way into the household and pocketbook of Orgon, a wealthy member of French society. Hilarity ensues in ways surprisingly familiar to modern audiences, with Orgon stubbornly refusing to listen to friends and family, doubling down on his investment again and again as they desperately try to convince him of Tartuffe’s true nature.

A timeless story is made stronger through a sharp, contemporary adaptation of Moliére’s script. “I set out to find a modern translation that underlines what’s new and relatable in this story. Ranjit Bolt’s adaptation does just that. It’s a version that I believe will speak to a younger generation—it brings the play from 1664 to 2021. This is a Restoration comedy updated to reflect our current climate,” said Smith.

Not every play survives the transition to film and TV—or streaming internet video—but “Tartuffe” has been successfully adapted more than a dozen times. In fact, one of Smith’s favorite versions was created for the screen. “I’ve been a big fan of this play since I was a student—specifically the 1983 Royal Shakespeare Company’s televised adaptation starring Antony Sher. His physical comedy is phenomenal,” says Smith.

Making theatre work on film can be difficult, but extensive support and expertise came from a team member with the perfect skill set: a student double majoring in both Theatre and Film & Media Arts. “We could not have done this without Jason Snow, our original lighting designer turned filmmaker extraordinaire,” said Smith. “I never imagined I would be saying ‘quiet on set’ or ‘action’ when I finally got the chance to direct ‘Tartuffe.’ But after we had to postpone the show last March, I wanted these students to be able to share their work no matter what.”

Filming may have wrapped just a couple of weeks ago, but folks will only have to wait until May 5 to finally see “Tartuffe.” The wait will definitely be worth it—especially since admission is free for this on-demand streaming production.

‘Tartuffe’

Written by Molière
In a new translation by Ranjit Bolt
May 5-12, 2021

This pre-recorded production will be streamed on-demand. For admission, fill out this registration form and receive an email with access information for the production. Each admission provides 48 hours of access. You may watch as many times as you wish during this 48-hour period. Additional access requires a new admission.

As a gesture of thanks for your support and interest, the Department of Theatre is pleased to be able to offer free admission to this production. Donations, as always, are appreciated.