A year ago, Peter DuBois woke up the morning after Election Day with a psychic hangover, still stunned about the results. But as the artistic director of the Huntington Theatre Company, he also had an epiphany about one of the plays he wanted to produce the following season — Molière’s “Tartuffe,” a fiercely wicked satire he had always longed to direct and which now felt more timely than ever.
It’s a year later, and the theater is getting ready to mount the play, starring Tony Award winner Frank Wood and ubiquitous actor/comedian Brett Gelman, at its Huntington Avenue Theatre beginning Friday. “Tartuffe” centers on a religious charlatan (Gelman), the svengali-like figure of the title, who worms his way into the life of Orgon (Wood), a wealthy bourgeois businessman, and brings him under his spiritual and psychic sway. Tartuffe’s influence on Orgon remains dismaying to the patriarch’s family, who see him as a fraud and a hypocrite, a man who bellows false pieties and evinces an air of moral superiority.
Despite his family’s protestations, Orgon remains blinded by his admiration for Tartuffe, going so far as to sign away his fortune, ignore the amorous attention Tartuffe lavishes on his wife, and promise Tartuffe his daughter Mariane’s hand in marriage (even though she’s engaged to someone else).
“What happens when a very shrewd, calculating charlatan comes into a house, brainwashes the person in charge, and then that person allows the charlatan to turn that house upside down and disregard the people closest to him?” DuBois says over lunch on a recent afternoon. “It’s our harrowing non-farcical reality that this same level of farce has worked its way into the political discourse.”
Theatergoers these days seem to see everything through a Trump-ian lens. But DuBois insists that he didn’t want to approach the play as a “one-to-one correlative” to any specific political figure. Indeed, the play’s contemporary resonances can be viewed through various lenses.
“Many people are being tricked right now — out of their political seats, out of political office — and there’s much duplicitousness that’s going on,” DuBois says. “So to just stick an orange wig onto Tartuffe or to do anything obvious felt, frankly, very boring to me.”
Inside a rehearsal hall next to the Huntington Avenue Theatre, Wood and actress Jane Pfitsch are working through a scene in which Orgon has returned from a trip; Pfitsch’s opinionated housemaid Dorine is trying to explain to her deluded boss that his wife, Elmire (Melissa Miller), had taken ill while he was away. Yet Orgon only wants to hear about Tartuffe’s well-being.
“She suffered, that first night/She seemed to lose her appetite/The reason must have been the pain/She also had a bad migraine,” says Dorine. Yet Orgon simply inquires, “And Tartuffe?” Dorine replies, “Him? Oh, he ate and ate!/Sat by her with a piled-up plate/And very piously plowed through/Two chickens and an Irish stew.” “Poor man!” exclaims the tone-deaf Orgon.
The actors are trying to naturalistically speak the tongue-tripping verse — with a translation by Ranjit Bolt featuring eight-beats-per-line rhyming couplets — while walking through the blocking of various comic moments.
Besides Dorine and Elmire, the characters attempting to cure Orgon of his brainwashing include his wife’s level-headed brother Cléante (Matthew J. Harris), and his spoiled children Damis (Matthew Bretschneider) and Mariane (Sarah Oakes Muirhead). While his daughter is engaged to the young Valère (Gabriel Brown), Orgon is formulating a plan to force Mariane to marry Tartuffe instead. Then there’s Orgon’s sanctimonious mother, Madame Pernelle (Paula Plum), who has a fangirl crush on the con man.
For Wood, Orgon has become a true believer. But why does he place his faith in Tartuffe with such zeal?
“When somebody offers you something in the territory of emotional fulfillment or spirituality and says I can give you something that no one else can give you, why are we so willing to believe that?” says Wood, who has starred on Broadway in “August: Osage County,” “Clybourne Park,” and “Side Man,” for which he won a Tony. (From Lincoln, he is the son of former UMass president Robert Wood and the brother of US Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.)
Wood speculates that because Orgon is wealthy and privileged, “Tartuffe preys on him by picking at his insecurities. I think it has something to do with personal vanity. A wealthy person needs to demonstrate their moral place in the world, to make a show of it.”
Gelman — whose recent roles include TV’s “Stranger Things,” “Twin Peaks,” and “Married” as well as the indie film “Lemon” — says he sees shades of President Trump, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, and disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein in Tartuffe.
“We’re really examining why this story needs to be told today, given the character’s deceit and the way he lies to everyone and manipulates people to get what he wants,” Gelman says. “Then there’s the sexual harassment aspect of this play, because Tartuffe’s seduction of Elmire is basically sexual abuse.”
While Gelman spent his formative years working with the live sketch comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade before breaking into television, the 41-year-old actor shares that it’s “always been a big regret of mine that I didn’t really pursue legitimate theater from the ground up,” after graduating from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he was trained in the classics. “I’ve never let theater out of my heart,” he says, adding, “Molière’s had a huge influence on me. He’s one of my favorite writers, and Tartuffe is easily among my top 10 dream roles to play.”
DuBois and set designer Alexander Dodge have created a decadent living space that mixes Louis XIV furnishings inside a contemporary penthouse, with sweeping views from an enormous windowed wall. Says DuBois, “I was sitting in [his] design studio in New York, and we were looking up at these high-rises, and we said to ourselves, ‘That’s where Orgon would live today. That’s where Tartuffe would want to end up.’” The costumes, designed by Anita Yavich, mix the baroque and the modern (“Louis XIV meets Dolce & Gabbana,” DuBois says).
When “Tartuffe” was first performed in the 1660s, the Catholic Church and devout factions of upper-class society wanted it banned. Indeed, it was censored by authorities, and Molière even wrote a revised version attempting to placate his critics.
Today, DuBois worries about the challenges of performing satire in a polarized political and cultural climate. “People have lost their sense of humor about certain things,” DuBois says. “There are things we used to be able to laugh at that just aren’t funny anymore. But political correctness or any kind of militancy, left or right, is a comedy killer.”
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Nov. 10 to Dec. 10. Tickets: $25-$99, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.