Make us your home page
Instagram

The presidential campaign as told through a satirical 17th century play

An opinionated man with passionate followers and detractors makes an unwanted sexual advance. When the woman objects, he blames her for being attractive and tempting him.

When confronted by a witness, he proclaims his innocence and denounces the accuser.

If that storyline sounds familiar in this election cycle, it should. But the events here are fictional and were written long ago — the 17th century, to be exact. On Friday, American Stage Theatre Company debuts an adaptation of Tartuffe, a satirical look at religious piety and power by the French dramatist Moliére.

The St. Petersburg professional theater is taking a stab at the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And they're doing it at a time when most theaters in Tampa Bay are swerving into the absurd amid collective political exhaustion.

Stageworks Theatre in Tampa is doing Charles Busch's campy Psycho Beach Party. Jobsite Theater in Tampa is doing Lizzie, a partylike musical about the Lizzie Borden murders.

American Stage? It is facing political fatigue head-on.

"I've been feeling anxiety and stress over (the election)," said Stephanie Gularte, the producing artistic director at American Stage who commissioned the adaptation. "This is an opportunity for people to use what is going on now as a kind of catharsis."

In this world premiere modeled on the 2016 presidential election and directed by Brendan Ragan, all sides are challenged and no one is safe.

Alternate subtitles for the original Tartuffe originally included "The Imposter," or "The Deceiver." It's a play about a con man who succeeds because he is well-spoken and will say or do anything to get what he wants. The adaptation has lost its 17th century trappings and dialogue. The action takes place in the backyard and pool area of a wealthy businessman, Orgon, who has taken in the homeless Tartuffe, a con man he sees as a saint.

The idea for doing Tartuffe came to Gularte as she was contemplating shows that might fall into this season's theme, "In Search of America." She first saw Tartuffe at 12, and considers it influential in getting her into theater. It has been on her "bucket list of plays to produce."

But Moliére was about as American as crêpes suzette. The play debuted in 1664 at the Palace of Versailles. She figured she would have to produce it some other time.

The more she thought about it, though, common themes started joining up. Especially, she said, "the idea of really honing in on the fanatical passion and the nature of demagoguery, and, in part, the absurdity of people who are getting behind someone regardless of what they are and what they stand for.

"It's a timeless human behavior throughout human history," she said.

She thought she was seeing that behavior everywhere as the country took sides. At the time, Bernie Sanders and Clinton were still slugging it out, and Democratic race was getting bitter.

"People were feeling the Bern, and it was kind of a 'my guy or no one' blind faith in this singular guy," Gularte said. On the other side, there were six Republican nominees.

She asked Robert Caisley, whom she met while running a theater in Sacramento, if he would be interested in adapting the script to make it contemporary. Caisley has taught Tartuffe every year at the University of Idaho, where he heads the playwriting program. He liked the concept and saw a lot in current events to work with.

"We're as neurotic today as we were 300 years ago," Caisley said. "We agonize over the same petty issues. We are possessed of the same insecurities. So the similarities that a contemporary audience shares with these 17th century-characters are greater than the differences."

As the field narrowed to Trump and Clinton, social media wars erupted and legions of voters unfriended each other on Facebook. A similar divide happens within the family of Orgon, who thinks his silver-tongued lodger is a spiritual savant. Others are amazed an intelligent man could be duped so easily by a swindler.

Parallels with the current election are deliberately inexact.

"Tartuffe is not Trump," Caisley said. "Tartuffe uses religion to exploit his advantage over others. His primary tactic is to feign piety. So that could not be further from Trump. Tartuffe comes from absolute poverty, whereas Trump comes from family wealth."

The contemporary twist comes when, at Orgon's urging, Tartuffe runs for political office. While politics wasn't Tartuffe's idea, he takes to it quickly, adopting the slogan, "Pray for America."

Caisley's script tweaks multiple candidates and political sensibilities. There's a purely invented character reminiscent of Mitt Romney who has "great hair." Another candidate, Tartuffe's opponent in the race, "has great ideas, but he has no idea how to pay for them," Caisley said. You might also see a connection when a frustrated Orgon destroys his Blackberry with a hammer over emails containing sensitive information.

Rehearsals were going along fine. Then came this election's October surprise. The Washington Post obtained a 2005 video from Access Hollywood, in which Trump brags about his ability to grope women with impunity. Since then, 11 women have publicly accused Trump of sexual misconduct. He has called all accusations false.

Before this, the cast had been enjoying the daily bloodsport of politicians angling for power. They hadn't paid as much mind to the play's "seduction scene," in which Tartuffe tries to seduce Mira, Orgon's wife, then calls her a liar.

"We looked at the seduction scene through a different lens once the Trump hot-mic tape came out," Gularte said. "We were walking this line now. It was like, 'This is no longer funny.' "

Caisley stepped through a similar wormhole working on the script, which he shared with writer friends for feedback.

"People who read the script after the famous Billy Bush (video) just assume that I capitalized on this," Caisley said.

That stuff, he told them, was written by Moliére.

"Most of my friends are leftie artists — writers, directors, et cetera — who are fairly progressive in their politics," Caisley said. "They thought Orgon's blindness to Tartuffe's manipulations throughout the play were manufactured, or at least significantly enhanced in my adaptation. They're not."

It's the same mystification available 24 hours a day on cable news stations, as Trump and Clinton supporters grow further apart almost by the day, Caisley said.

"The two sides are blind to one another," he said. "But every one of these moments is pure Moliére."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

. If you go

'Tartuffe'

The show runs Oct. 28 through Nov. 20 at American Stage Theatre Company, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 823-7529. $39-$60. americanstage.org.

The presidential campaign as told through a satirical 17th century play 10/21/16 [Last modified: Sunday, October 23, 2016 10:52pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. On the Camino de Santiago, Day 19: A peregrina spends the whole day under the weather, and part of the day under the table

    Travel

    Day 19: El Burgo Ranero to Puente Villarente: 25.4 km, 7.5 hours (Total for Days 1-19 = 454 km (282 miles)

    This list pretty much sums up my day:

    Eat two bananas

    Walk 13.1 kilometers

    Nap

    Walk 6.2 kilometers

    Nap

    Eat half an apple

    Walk 6.1 kilometers

    Crash< …

  2. On the Camino de Santiago, Day 18: Despite feeling ill, this pilgrim passes the midpoint in her 500-mile journey on foot

    Travel

    Day 18: Lédigos to El Burgo Ranero: 34.3 km, 12.25 hours (Total for Days 1-18 = 428 km (266 miles)

    Today was a struggle.

  3. Actor John Heard dies at age 72

    Blogs

    John Heard, who played so many roles in the '80s but was probably best known as the dad in the Home Alone movies, has died, according to media reports. He was 72.

  4. On the Camino de Santiago, Day 17: Think 11 miles of nothing but straight trail and open, flat fields sounds easy? Think again.

    Travel

    Day 17: Villarmentero de Campos to Lédigos: 33.5 km, 10.25 hours. Total for Days 1-17 = 394 km (245 miles)

  5. Tom Sawyer with a revolver? Twain house has live 'Clue' game

    Attractions

    HARTFORD, Conn. — Was it Tom Sawyer in Samuel Clemens' billiard room with a revolver?

    In this July 14 photo, actor Dan Russell, left, portraying the character Arkansas from Mark Twain's book Roughing it, responds to a question from 10-year-old Emma Connell, center, of Arizona during a "Clue" tour at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn. The tour allows visitors to interact with Twain characters while playing a live-action version of the board game. [AP Photo/Pat Eaton-Robb]