Friday, December 15, 2017

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 [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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