University of Alabama theater’s Moliere show laughs at hypocrisy

By Yun Yu For The Tuscaloosa News
Sunday, September 27, 2015 1:41 AM

Though a 17th-century con man, Tartuffe today still begs the question: Why are people
saps? Why do they seem to beg to be taken in by obvious frauds? Why do people cede
power to those clearly not fit for it?

These are among the questions Seth Panitch, director of “Tartuffe,” hopes to answer with
this week’s production.

“Tartuffe” was one of the most famous comedies written by French playwright Moliere,
first performed in 1664. The title character pretends to be devoutly religious to worm his
way into the rich businessperson Orgon’s house, to seduce his wife and rob his property.

Critics interpret this as Moliere’s satire of the hypocritical French upper class and the
Catholic Church leaders of his time, but Panitch is seeking to tell the story from a more
relevant, contemporary aspect.

“I’m focusing on why — why they would invite these people (hypocrites) into their lives,”
said Panitch, professor of acting and head of the MFA and undergraduate acting
programs at the University of Alabama.

Panitch believes the weakness of humanity is one point Moliere tried to explore in this
play. Orgon, the head of the house, is blinded by Tartuffe’s confidence, being afraid to
take control of his own family. He asks Tartuffe to take on his responsibilities, like a
sheep inviting a wolf into the fold.

Preparing a play written three-and-a-half centuries ago is not easy. One difficult thing is
how to catch and keep audiences’ attention. Panitch cut nonessentials from the lengthy
original script.

“The story becomes clearer to the audiences because you turn the things they are less
interested in away,” he said.

He also adds visual expressions to enhance the text. For example, when two characters
talk about another, Panitch brings the person on stage to show, rather than tell.

“In some moments of the show we try to allow audiences to visualize the character who is
talked about by the other characters, which is very important in the play,” he said.

The balance of naturalism and musicality in Moliere was difficult to maintain through the
translation from French to English. Panitch settled on the translation by Richard Wilbur
to preserve the texture of the original.

Adding to the challenges, Panitch and his cast and crew have had only four weeks to
rehearse, two weeks less than normal preparation time.

“Professional actors work faster than we do. When I directed in the professional theaters,
we used 90 hours to rehearse for one play,” Panitch said. “What you do is work faster.”

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