Molière’s “Tartuffe” takes the stage at Harper Joy Theatre

by Ian Jagel

You are not a philistine. In fact, you, as a representative of Whitman College, are supposedly very interested in culture and diversity. So if there were an opportunity to expose yourself to a quintessential piece of culture, you wouldn’t miss it… right? Starting tonight through this Sunday afternoon you have four opportunities to expose yourself to Molière’s play “Tartuffe.”

Written at the advent of the Enlightenment, “Tartuffe” struggles with themes of false piety and religious fundamentalism. Banned shortly after its opening, “Tartuffe” eventually came to be one of the most prolific pieces of theatre ever preformed.

“Tartuffe” is the story of a bourgeois family in Paris set in the time of the Catholic counter-reformation. The head of the household, Orgon, has brought a dévot, or religiously devout person, named Tartuffe to live with his family and has indiscriminately allowed him to subject the entire household to his religiosity. Only Orgon and his mother, Madame Pernelle, however, have faith in Tartuffe as the rest of the house sees him appropriately as a fraud.

The subtitle of the name play, “The Imposter,” lets the audience member know at the advent of the play that Tartuffe is in fact a fake. The plot of “Tartuffe” centers in the family trying to convince Orgon and Madame Pernelle that they are deceived by Tartuffe and conversely Orgon’s attempt at cementing his bond with Tartuffe by any means necessary.

Burke Walker, director of Harper Joy Theatre’s production of “Tartuffe,” has a long-standing affinity with “Tartuffe.” “I’ve studied it in class on multiple occasions, I’ve seen multiple productions, I’ve produced it once, I’ve done a number of Molière plays, I’ve been in a few [as an actor],” said Walker.

Walker was pleased to get the opportunity to finally direct “Tartuffe,” likening it to a director’s experience of “doing your first Hamlet. It’s a very rich text that has been open to a number of interpretations.”

“I’d been thinking about ‘Tartuffe’ as a great play that deals with the issue of false piety. People who use a kind of outward display of religiosity in order to achieve goals and aim that have little to do with faith or religion, but in fact are economic or social or political.”

In speaking of his interpretation of the piece, Walker noted how the character of Tartuffe has already been established at the start of the play and therefore all the action centers on the convictions of Orgon. “The character of Orgon is carefully constructed as a focus in this production,” said Walker.

“Orgon, to me, represents a kind of willful ignorance. He represents people who essentially create their own versions of reality and their own versions of factual support for that reality. It’s one thing to have a different interpretation of reality, but it’s a different thing entirely to blow it off and just invent whatever you want to invent.”

Walker, noting how the play is relevant to today, said that “the idea of a play that deals with notions of false piety and the use of piety are notions that sadly are never entirely out of date. In a number of parts of the world, not just the United States, there is a rise in fundamentalist religion.”

The play has been thoroughly enjoyed by those associated with the production. First-year stage manager Helen Brambrink said, “I love the production. It’s a really cool cast and a really cool interpretation.”

This production will also be the final performance for three senior theatre majors who have each been a large presence in their own right. Dru Johnston, Lisa Battle and Kate Russell will say goodbye to the Harper Joy stage after the final performance on Sunday. “This will be my final bow here at Whitman,” said Johnston ironically.

“Tartuffe” opens tonight at Harper Joy’s Alexander stage at 8 p.m. and has subsequent evening shows on Friday and Saturday with a closing matinee on Sunday that starts at 2 p.m. Tickets are still available through the Harper Joy theatre box office.