Seton Hill presents update of classic French play
One of Moliere’s 17th-century classic comedies, “Tartuffe,” makes its Seton Hill University debut with a modern-day twist.
Staged by Seton Hill’s Theatre and Dance Program, the play that will open this weekend is a new version by contemporary playwright Constance Congdon. It takes place not in Paris in the 1660s as the French actor-playwright intended, but, rather, in present-day Orange County, Calif.
Director Denise Pullen, associate professor of theatre at Seton Hill, says that although the setting for the production is California, Congdon’s translation remains true to Moliere’s text and is written in rhymed couplets.
“Some actors take to it right away, and some struggle,” Pullen says. “It’s important that the rhyme is not predictable and monotonous, and that the meaning carries through the longer exchanges.”
“Tartuffe” delves into religious hypocrisy and its effect on characters influenced by the title character that infiltrates a wealthy family seeking not only to win the family fortune, but also the patriarch Orgon’s daughter and wife.
For student-actor Layne Bailey of Wexford, a senior musical-theater major, portraying the character Dorine — a Puerto Rican maid in Orgon’s house who speaks the truth but rarely is believed — is testing her language-delivery skills.
“The biggest challenge I find is making the rhyming sound like everyday vernacular. I’m a stickler for not falling into a rhyming pattern, so making the language flow always proves to be difficult,” Bailey says.
Adapting the 17th-century references and attitudes to contemporary ideas also has been challenging for some of the characters. The director says the cast was lucky to participate in a workshop on Commedia dell’arte, 16th-century improvisational sketch comedy with masks that influenced Moliere’s work.
“The students were able to identify stock character matches and incorporate their physical and behavioral traits into their interpretation,” she says.
Veronica Vento of West Homestead, a senior musical-theater major at Seton Hill, portrays Elmire, the wife of Orgon and the stepmother of his children. She says her character is a strong, bold and smart woman who wants the best for her family even when her ways of getting what she wants are unconventional. She also is an extravagant woman who always needs to look and feel her best.
“I wanted to perform in this production because I knew it would be a blast to work on and a new challenge to face,” Vento says. “I also knew that it would be a big learning experience for me.”
Pullen says the themes in “Tartuffe” can relate to today’s society and have sparked discussions among the students about political and religious extremism.
“Many have experienced or witnessed attacks from groups that use religion as a way to justify their judgment and hatred,” she says. “The students have expressed strong feelings about corporations and organizations that are ‘Christian,’ yet openly practice discrimination.”
“Tartuffe” is a favorite play of the director, who finds the physical comedy great fun and the satire wickedly sharp.
“But I really respect the messages the play delivers,” she says, “that we can’t buy our way into heaven, that religious extremity — or extremism of any sort — is dangerous, and that reason trumps blind faith.”
The Seton Hill student cast also includes Ryan Bartos of West Leisenring, Elena Falgione of Glenshaw, Tabbitha Gordon of Pittsburgh, Lauren Grasser of Johnstown, DeShaun Herzog of Titusville, Patrick “P.J.” McMahon of Gibsonia, Joshua Reardon of McMurray, Katelynn Reist of Cleona, Kelsey Riker of Douglassville and Adam Sarp of Latrobe.
Candy Williams is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.