Mike Ross (left) and Julian Richings move to the 17th-centuy beat in Molière.
MOLIERE by Sabina Berman, translated by Shelley Tepperman, directed by Richard Rose, with Richard McMillan, Rick Roberts, Julian Richings, Cara Pifko, Nancy Palk and Mike Ross. Tarragon (30 Bridgman). Previews through Tuesday (December 2), opens Wednesday (December 3) and runs to December 28 (except December 24-26), Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday 2:30 pm. $32-$38, Friday rush $10, previews $19. 416-531-1827.
Theatre audiences love a good fight.
But the two opponents in Sabina Berman's Molière make surprising enemies: 17th-century playwrights Molière (Tartuffe) and Racine (Phaedre), who battle over whether comedy or tragedy is the more important art form.
Sound dry? Not in this rich epic play where the court of Louis XIV takes sides and one of Molière's chief enemies, the powerful Archbishop Prefixe, detests the arts and announces that "all artists are buffoons."
Maybe Stephen Harper channelled the archbishop in his recent election talk about ordinary Canadians not caring about the arts.
"Both Harper and Prefixe know a thing or two about cunning, so that's very possible," laughs actor Julian Richings, who plays Prefixe in the Tarragon production. "The archbishop is all about self-sacrifice and repression, and worse, he knows how to exploit the needs of other people to get what he wants."
Prefixe's conniving narrow-mindedness also exacerbates the disagreement between the two playwrights. The churchman bets Louis that if Molière were to lose the pleasures in life, he would also lose his comic spirit. Racine sees the challenge as a way to become a favourite at court, which until then had preferred laughter to tears.
"The court world is rife with intrigue, and both Church and State include hypocrites trying to consolidate their power," continues Richings, who's previously taken audiences to the court of the Sun King in Don Druick's solo show Through The Eyes. (Coincidentally, Richard McMillan, who plays Molière, also performed in Druick's play.)
"The archbishop is one of the best manipulators in this game. He does his best to suppress the disorder that comedy fosters and at the same time prevent people from seeing behind the mask of seriousness and propriety that he presents.
"He's the kind of man who, when he leaves a room, can be mocked or vilified. It's a difficult place for him to operate in," smiles Richings, "but a rich one for an actor."
The multi-scene play moves cinematically between the intrigues of theatre and court, a flow that's hard to capture onstage. Those transitions are partly in the hands of musical director and sound designer Mike Ross, who's also acting in Molière. Appropriately, he plays composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, who scored his friend Molière's productions.
"Director Richard Rose and I talked about how music can help in the storytelling and also to move the audience seamlessly from one theatrical environment to another," recalls Ross, a Soulpepper Academy grad. "We didn't want to use the blackouts mentioned in the script, so that gave me the challenge of using music to make the transitions."
Though at first Ross thought he'd be composing much of the music, listening to Lully's own melodies convinced him that period music would offer an even better contrast to the script's contemporary tone. Ross has the company sing, play a variety of instruments and use others means to punctuate the action.
"We decided to source all the music in the show from Lully's scores, both sacred and secular," he says. "They have an energy, a temperature, all their own."
That unlikely bridge between 21st-century language and 17th-century melody echoes the nature of the play, offers Richings.
"Though the play is called Molière, it's told from the viewpoint of Racine, the rival who hated him. But periodically, Molière's anarchic comic spirit breaks out and refuses to be doused. The result is a double-edged reality, one that we try to present without calling attention to the arch between the various truths."
No surprise, though, that most of the battles are carried out with the formal politeness you'd expect in such an elegant society.
"One of the key phrases in the play is ‘s'il vous plaît,' if it pleases you," says Ross. "That sense of offering services is what a company of performers does to an audience, and it's what a bow to the viewers signifies at the end of a play."