BWW Interviews: David Kennedy Makes the 17th Century Hip
BWW Interviews: David Kennedy and His Vision of Tartuffe
By Sherry Shameer Cohen
David Kennedy, Associate Artistic Director and active director at Westport Country Playhouse, will take theatre goers from the 17th century to the present with his vision of Molière’s classic comedy, Tartuffe. Kennedy previously directed Suddenly Last Summer, Beyond Therapy and Dinner with Friends at Westport Country Playhouse. He directed The Misanthrope, Glengarry Glen Ross, I Am My Own Wife, The Violet Hour, Thom Pain (based on nothing) and Moonlight and Magnolias at the Dallas Theater Center, and directed plays at the Wilma Theatre, Clarence Brown Theatre Company, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 78th Street Theatre Lab, Prospect Theater Company and Kitchen Dog Theater, among others. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, he is a former Phil Killian Fellow at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a Drama League Directing Fellow. He was a founding artistic director of The Lunar Society in Toronto and Milkman Theatre Group in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and served as artistic director of The Summer Cabaret in New Haven.
Tartuffe is always timeless and timely. What was the reason for staging it in 2012?
It’s one of these plays that you can do in any given year and something will resonate. We felt strongly about the notion of doing it now because it’s about a polarized world, which is clearly what America is today. The play’s subjects are power, obedience, religious hypocrisy, politics. Molière was a great satirist. Satire is a portrait, not a treatise. It gives you a picture of history or the world, not an idea of how it can be improved. It’s not an advocacy type of theatre. Molière was so perspicacious, with real insight into human nature. He held a mirror up to 17th-century Paris, and it was like he was holding a mirror to us. Taking the play apart and examining it, you realize that between then and now nothing much has fundamentally changed.
As Jean de La Bruyère, a French contemporary of Molière said, history is a process in which the actors are constantly changing and the costumes are constantly changing, but the characters remain the same. That became a touchstone for this play and when I was working on The Misanthrope a few years ago. Superficial things have changed, but the fundamentals are the same.
What are the challenges of directing play that was written in the 17th century?
With Molière, one of the great challenges is selecting a translation. Do you choose verse or prose? With a prose translation, you might actually get closer to the literal meaning of a line or a scene. With a verse translation, a good one, you get more of the sparkle and wit. Usually every new generation needs its own translation, [but we’re] using the great Richard Wilbur translation which has never gone out of style despite being a half century old.
The difficulty of a verse translation—there’s not as much of a tradition of the rhymed couplet in English language theater—is finding a way to make your way through the delicacy and subtlety of the text. It’s the rare actor who can rise to that occasion. That kind of verse seems mostly foreign to us, yet in terms of accessing the material and psychology beneath the words, the play is as fresh now as it was 350 years ago. In the theater, we’re always talking plays being timeless, but in this case it’s actually true. There’s something about Molière that really does beggar belief that it was written so long ago.