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FACES & VOICES
French Drama Takes Over at STC
by Laura Henry Buda
The French theatrical tradition has given us so many great plays, one might expect the Shakespeare Theatre Company had been producing French classics from the first. Surprisingly, STC’s first foray into French theatre wasn’t until 2004—but since then, eight of the last twelve seasons have included at least one work by a French author. These plays span from the time of Louis XIV to the turn of the 20th century, encompassing heart-rending melodrama and belly-laugh comedy. Directors at STC have chosen a variety of styles and approaches to these plays, creating our very own tradition of French theatre.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s liaison amoureuse with the French began with Michael Kahn’s production of Cyrano by Edmond Rostand in 2004, closely followed by Lorenzaccio by Alfred de Musset in 2005. Both plays were written in the 1800s; however, Musset writes a grand historical melodrama, echoing his Romantic cohort Victor Hugo, while Rostand bucks the Naturalistic style of Zola and Ibsen to pen a nostalgic romance set in the days of cavalier and musketeer. Wanting to invigorate these French pieces for a modern American audience, Michael Kahn tackled both with a now familiar STC approach: a new, accessible translation that honors the original text; exceptional actors to bring the characters to life; and a magnificent, detailed design that conjures the time setting, whether it be the Medicis’ Florence or Cyrano’s Paris.
Next came two Molières: Don Juan (2005) and The Imaginary Invalid (2007). Both directors seized on the theatrics and farcicality of Molière’s comedy. In the hands of opera director Stephen Wadsworth, Don Juan had all the elaborate opulence and stylized presentation of a grand entertainment. Wadsworth directed with purposeful style, emphasizing artificiality in everything from the set pieces to the actors’ delivery. “To me, style and content are the same thing,” he said in a 2006 interview in STC’s Asides. “You have to understand that elements of style in gesture, speech, and posture are emotions encoded…[Y]ou can construct an elegant, visually ‘traditional’ production in period dress and still do really aggressive, radical, invasive work.” The Imaginary Invalid, directed by STC veteran Keith Baxter, had all the gorgeously meticulous signatures of Baxter’s work (a “stylistic hedonist” according to the Washington Post) evident in his earlier productions of Lady Windemere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband, and more recently The Importance of Being Earnest. Baxter’s production was carnival-like, embracing the absurdity of Molière’s comedy amidst an idyllic Paris setting.
David Ives’s rich collaboration with STC and Michael Kahn brought about the next chapter of STC French theatre. “Translaptating” three French works from lesser known dramatists, Ives rendered previously unknown French comedies in his uniquely lunatic, quick-witted style. For Ives, each script had its own peculiar genius. In The Liar, his first collaboration, it was the language itself: “language being the wire Dorante dances upon, the language had to match his agile mind at every turn…Only rhyme would do.” In The Heir Apparent, the hook was physical hijinks and comic lazzi; most recently, in The Metromaniacs it was the intricate plotting and sheer joy in silliness. Kahn set about taming each play’s extraordinary quirks, bringing Ives’s words to life in a gossamer setting, while providing whatever the laugh demanded: an imaginary duel to the death, a ballroom forest with rubber rocks, and two full-body pig suits.
In 2015, we welcome a different brand of French theatre with Dominqiue Serrand’s Tartuffe. Serrand and Steven Epp, his Tartuffe, agree that French theatre in America is often imbued with a certain artificial presentation, performed in a stylized, overly clever manner. By contrast, Serrand and Epp prefer to focus on the humanity beneath the jest. Instead of highly stylized, Serrand’s production is style deconstructed. From the beginning, he knew he wanted a stark, minimal aesthetic. Orgon’s house is bright as day, with nowhere to hide. It was imperative to Serrand that the audience see that Tartuffe’s “lie is well lit.” Design and staging develop hand in hand during Serrand’s artistic process, leading to a cohesive production that stands on the bedrock of the play’s themes. For Serrand, Molière’s genius is not in his comedy, or even his theatricality—but in his philosophy. By concentrating on the motives and vulnerability of the characters, Serrand and Epp have created a Tartuffe that is equal parts hilarious and unsettling, teasing out troubling ideas about fear, betrayal, and hypocrisy. This production and many others to come will continue to build a grand tradition of French theatre at STC. Vive la France!
Laura Henry Buda is STC’s Community Engagement Manager and served as Artistic Fellow in the 2011-2012 Season. She holds an MFA in Dramaturgy from the A.R.T./M.X.A.T. Institute at Harvard University.
Tartuffe runs through July 5 at Sidney Harman Hall.