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.
What can the audience expect from this version?
It’s a modern dress production, but there are no changes to Wilbur’s script. My desire for this production is to make seem as fresh and modern and immediate as possible. The way I go about treating comedy is very seriously. It’s a gospel truth that the more the characters in a comedy have at stake, the funnier it will be. And in Tartuffe so much is at stake—wealth, power, sex, love.
The play is less about religion than the idea of power. Religion is the medium with which Tartuffe manipulates the household. In another society, it could be something else such as finance, politics. Pick your guru.
Theorists and scholars have dissected the play and claim that Molière meant for Orgon to be a comic version of Louis XIV and Tartuffe was Louis' ministers, the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. Did you and Mark Lamos consider the original setting of the play and the time during which Moliere wrote it?
A little bit. I’ve considered it much more since really getting into the pre-production work. It was not greatly on my mind 18 months ago. Certainly when thinking about this play, you can’t ignore the political context. Of course, there’s an officer of the king on stage in the play, and references to absolute power abound. That’s quite remarkable. It’s crucial to understanding what’s going on. I immerse myself in the contextual setting of a play to understand the world from which the play came. For instance, this period in French history saw the creation of the world’s first great middle class. Orgon was from the middle class, but he was fabulously wealthy. He didn’t have a title, but he managed to amass power in the world. That’s important to understanding his behavior.
You staged The Misanthrope at the Dallas Theater Center. Did you do that as a period piece?
I did, actually. My instinct was that the play took place in a world of conspicuous consumption. Also, it was set in a rigid hierarchal and oppressive political system that forced people to speak in code. Those two things coexist today in Russia under Putin, say, or China where there’s a new economic reality. I didn’t want to set it in China or Russia, and I didn’t think 21st century America made sense. I decided to set it in the period, but make it as glossy and sexy to us as it seemed to them, mostly through the use of modern materials on a period silhouette.
What is involved, from start to finish, in the creative process of choosing and directing a play at The Westport Country Playhouse?
The season selection is a group effort. Mark involves me, Annie Keefe, Kim Furano and David Dreyfoos. We trade scripts. We meet once a month. We trade lots of emails. Some titles serve as cornerstones and you have to land them early. One or two may dictate the shape of the season. You need variety and balance. It’s like a dinner party. You don’t want five courses to be all the same. You want people who come to Westport Country Playhouse to have the most variety possible. There’s also personal taste. Every director has an entirely different way of approaching material, be it new, contemporary, classical. I can only say for myself that once a script is chosen and I know I’m going to direct it, I tend to use the full year or so before rehearsal to plan. I read a lot. I read the play again many many times. There’s a long period before I even talk to the designers. I dream about the play. I have a long and leisurely design process [and work with] designers who love to experiment.
Tell me more about your role as Associate Artistic Director at Westport Country Playhouse.
Besides helping with the season selection, I run, produce and host many of supplemental programs, including post-show discussions, fall initiatives, symposiums. I have a lot of other responsibilities. I go out to the community and build bridges to other non-profit organizations and institutions. My responsibilities are kind of a Venn diagram. A lot of things overlap.
What else would you like theatregoers to know about Tartuffe?
Just that it really is one of the most funny and delightful and surprising plays ever written. There’s a reason it hasn’t been out of style for 350 years. Even if you think you know it or have seen it before, you don’t really know it. It’s an inexhaustible play. Come again!
Performances of Tartuffe run from Tuesdays through Sunday from July 17 - August 4, 2012. The cast includes Marc Kudisch (Tartuffe), Mark Nelson (Orgon), Justin Adams (Damis), Chrissy Albanese (Flipote), Matthew Amendt (Valère), Nadia Bowers (Elmire), Patricia Conolly (Madame Pernelle),Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Cléante), Jeremy Lawrence (Monsieur Loyal), William Peden (Officer), Jeanine Seralles (Dorine), and Charise Castro Smith (Mariane). For tickets and more information, call (888) 927-7529 or (203) 227-4177. The Westport Country Playhouse is located at 25 Powers Court in Westport, Connecticut. Visit www.westportplayhouse.org.
Photo credit: Kathleen O'Rourke