To light his production of “Tartuffe,” Molière’s 17th-century satire of religious hypocrisy, director Dominique Serrand had a bright idea. Why not make it look as if it’s happening in a single day, from sunrise to sunset?
That’s how it is unfolding at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall, where Serrand’s show is now playing after stints at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory.
The sun meticulously moves east to west, with the audience sitting where north would be. Changes are often imperceptible, imitating incremental shifts in daylight. Some lighting cues take forever to complete.
“We had a rule that we weren’t going to cheat,” says lighting designer Marcus Dilliard.
“Tartuffe” depicts a religious faker who takes over a gullible follower’s household from top to bottom. It was originally so controversial that Molière rewrote it several times, trying to overcome objections by religious censors and the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Serrand uses the word “brutal” to describe the play, and this dark version’s racy-looking ads feature a leering, peroxide-blond Steven Epp in a wardrobe-malfunction blatantly exposing his chest.
The West Coast press has called the production “fascinatingly sinister” and “relevant as ever, scarier than usual,” with Epp’s two-faced Tartuffe as a malevolent operator whom one reviewer likened to “House of Cards” schemer Frank Underwood.
“The religious extremists are getting stronger, from all sides,” Serrand says, explaining his attachment to the play. “It’s not extremists who are dangerous, but believers.”
Serrand ran Theatre de la Jeune Lune (Theater of the New Moon) in Minneapolis until it closed in 2008, only three years after the organization had won the regional theater Tony Award. Epp, a longtime troupe member, played Tartuffe in 1999 and 2006 in a show that Serrand says was a response to the 1990s culture wars. This is essentially the same production, now generated by the Moving Company, a Minneapolis outfit created by Serrand and Epp after Jeune Lune’s demise.
To keep the “Tartuffe” lighting dynamic yet natural, the role of the set’s architecture is huge, Dilliard says. The design, by Serrand and Thomas Buderwitz, was partly inspired by the Parisian landmarks St-Gervais-et-St-Protais and the Hôtel National des Invalides. Soaring windows and tall columns dominate the set.
“This allowed us to separate the ways light would get in, to create shadows depending on time of day,” Serrand explains. “You never see the same light again. You never go back.”
The illusion of real time means that the performance clocks in reliably night in and night out. The first act, according to Serrand, is one hour and 28 minutes, give or take no more than a minute.
“It’s pretty tight,” he says.
Dilliard marvels at Serrand’s discipline, allowing deep shadows and repositioning actors rather than tweaking the lights. In each new theater, Dilliard says, “he’s put an incredible amount of time placing the actors according to where the light is.”
D.C.-based lighting assistant Max Doolittle joined the show for this local leg. “It’s so nice to do something honest,” he says. “Something that tries to exploit nature for drama, rather than just light for light’s sake.” Like Dilliard, he notes Serrand’s disinclination to call for a little extra illumination when an actor moves into a dim area: “It’s the first show I’ve done that hasn’t had any of that.”
“It’s really Dominique,” Dilliard says, “trying to give the play what he calls a different kind of muscle.”
Tartuffe Through July 5 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets: $20-$110. 202-547-1122. www.shakespearetheatre.org.
“Tartuffe” takes place in the household of Orgon, a man who has fallen under the spell of the titular religious impostor. In the early moments Dorine, the family servant, explains this to Orgon’s brother-in-law, Cleante.
Serrand has set this scene in the dark, just before dawn.
“Dorine is sitting on the floor with a few candelabras,” Serrand says. “There’s a light from the oven. Cleante is sitting downstage in a chair, and there’s no light on him. He’s completely in the dark. It’s really strong.”
During the scene, dawn breaks, which Doolittle says is a slow, two-step process: “First, the windows on the stage left side get dimmer over about two minutes, and then more diffuse daylight starts to come in.” A cue that takes five minutes allows early-morning light to gently steal over the scene.
“The point is that you forget to look at what’s moving in the light,” Serrand says. “The feel changes.”
Again, as the “day” moves, so does the action. “If it’s a little late,” Serrand says, “per scene, it’s maximum 15 seconds, 10 seconds. We never vary the rhythm of the show.”
Tartuffe doesn’t enter until roughly the middle of the play — midday, in this scheme. Serrand and Dilliard put a chill on this scene.
“You see how suddenly the whole stage becomes colder,” Serrand explains. “A lot of the lights are doubled: There’s a warm tone and a cold tone, so you can switch. It’s the same progression in the day, but suddenly it’s like there is a cloud. So it’s colder.”
Tartuffe lusts after Orgon’s wife, Elmire, and the family baits him into a seduction attempt so Orgon can see the hypocrite’s true colors. (The husband hides under the table.) Traditionally this is farce, but Serrand doesn’t flinch from calling it a rape scene. The stage darkens, with rain and lightning moving in.
Here the full height of the tall central door is seen for the first time.
“We’re still in a continuous cue,” Serrand says. “The panel with the sun goes up very slowly during the rape scene. The doors are huge. It changes the entire space.”
Things look grim for Orgon and his clan: Tartuffe is taking over. Darkness falls. The door is seen fully closed, with light bouncing off its silvery surface.
“The color and direction are changing from the top windows,” Serrand says. “It’s getting to be more peachy-orange, and more diagonal. The sun is setting. It’s going more directly across. It’s very flat.” He points to lighting instruments hung very low, under the balcony in Harman Hall, projecting nearly horizontal beams.
“In a way,” Serrand says, “it’s more like a filming approach, where the light helps us frame in a cinematic way. It can be a static scene, but the entire look of it is changing.”
The creators did allow a few exceptions to this strict daylight pattern. “What is the fun of rules if you’re not going to break them once in a while?” Dilliard reasons.
Now and then they use footlights — very stagey, but also a tool Molière would have used (candle-powered, of course). There’s also a surprise at the end that they don’t want to spoil but that Dilliard says indicates a psychological meltdown.
Mostly, though, they stuck to their guns. Rehearsing the show at Jeune Lune, Dilliard occasionally bumped lights into more conventional patterns when he though Serrand wasn’t looking. Serrand noticed: “He’d say, ‘You’re cheating.’ ”