With theaters still closed, some troupes are forging new performance paths – from their homes into ours, via technology. On Saturday, Molière in the Park livestreamed their new production of Molière’s 17th-century classic Tartuffe (viewable at the company’s YouTube channel through 1 July 2020). With an excellent cast featuring Raúl Esparza in the title role and Samira Wiley as the central character of Orgon, this remarkably non-glitchy production succeeded not in spite of having to use (enhanced) Zoom technology, but because it embraced that technology’s limitations and possibilities.
Tartuffe is Molière’s story of a pretend-pious charlatan who worms his way into the confidence of a wealthy man and schemes to gain possession of his entire estate in spite of the objections of his less-gullible family members. The tale is especially apropos in a modern age of deadly chicanery, with a con artist in power running a nation into ruins. The production makes the parallel explicit now and again, but the message would be evident anyway.
As in a Zoom meeting, the participants appear in boxes forming a grid on your screen. Here, though, enhanced technology and inventive creative design have boxes zooming in and out to either fill the screen or shrink to nothing as characters exit, or stacking so as to reflect a scene’s dynamics. Orgon, the bamboozled head of household (Samira Wiley), even hides under a table, while in his digital box, to spy on his wife and the lecherous houseguest, in just one example of the interpolation of amusing animation effects into the action.
The actors do much more than stare out at us and speak their lines. They sidle in and out of camera view, lean in and back away, and even, on one occasion cleverly pass a handkerchief from one box to another. How about that? Stage business, with no real stage to do it on.
An opulent reddish backdrop underlies everything, so that everyone appears to be in the same “space.” The technology that removes the individual backgrounds of the actors’ actual locations isn’t perfect, so that when they move a hat might vanish into thin air or washes of black might appear. But these artifacts together with the animations create a faintly fantastical feeling that jibes quite well with the jovial wordplay of Richard Wilbur’s classic translation.
Esparza imbues Tartuffe with a mincing, serpentine hypocrisy that almost jumps through the screen. It’s a turn both dangerous, in a Malkovichian sense, and comic. His castmates, most of them significantly younger and in some cases gender-switched, inhabit their characters with deep sincerity leavened with touches of farcical caricature. They thus convince us we’re all in the same boat – and in on the same joke.
It’s all the more impressive in that they are working in what is really a new medium, a kind of live theater they have had to invent as they go. Kudos to director Lucie Tiberghien and the creative and technical teams for making it feel real and go smoothly. Theatrical productions are often amorphously described as “innovative.” (I plead guilty to this peccadillo myself.) But Molière in the Park’s pandemic-year Tartuffe truly is.