THE ROYAL COMEDIANS (MOLIÈRE) by Mikhail Bulgakov, directed by László Marton, with Diego Matamoros, Gregory Prest, Michael Hanrahan, Sarah Koehn, Raquel Duffy and Paolo Santalucia. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre (50 Tank House Lane). Previews through Monday (August 6), opens Tuesday (August 7) and runs in rep to September 21. $51-$68, stu $32, rush $5-$22. 416-866-8666. See listing.
When playwrights live in a repressive age, they sometimes turn to an earlier time to discuss their artistic constraints.
Mikhail Bulgakov's The Royal Comedians (Molière) isn't overtly political, dealing as it does with the life of 17th-century French comic playwright Molière. But Bulgakov, writing in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, found a parallel between his ruler, Stalin, and Molière's all-powerful Sun King, Louis XIV.
Soulpepper's production features not only company regulars Diego Matamoros (as Molière), Stuart Hughes and William Webster, but also the mainstage debuts of the eight members of the Soulpepper Academy.
"There are fascinating parallels between Molière and Bulgakov," says Sarah Koehn, who plays Molière's young bride, Armande Béjart. "Both were at the mercy of their rulers, and Molière was further inhibited by the Catholic Church, which had a huge influence on what art was created and performed.
"Bulgakov had a similar relationship with Stalin; some of his works were thought to slander the Soviet state, which was as dangerous a thing to do as criticize the established religion in Molière's time."
Directed by frequent guest artist László Marton, the show incorporates not only Bulgakov's text, but also scenes from Molière's plays, including episodes from Tartuffe and The School For Wives, which comment on what's happening offstage.
"László creates a context in which the audience sees how quickly things can shift in the world of Paris," notes Paolo Santalucia, who appears as Molière's adopted son, Zacharie Moirron. "It was a scary time in which the king could shower you with accolades one minute and put you in the dungeon the next.
"There's an excitement in performing that kind of manic changeability. Sometimes it can be funny, but then you're hit with how terrifying it can be. Bulgakov understood and lived that danger, too, trying to figure out, like Molière, how to please those in power."
Working with Marton brings the Academy members full circle; he was their first teacher when they started the program last year, guiding them through Ibsen scene studies.
"What he's always encouraged us to do is find out who we are as young actors and make use of that in the roles we play," explains Santalucia. "He never asks us to push beyond what we can do, but rather coaxes us to draw on our own experiences and lives to create a character.
"I adore the fact that when he talks about The Royal Comedians, it's always in terms of ‘our production.' Though it's his vision and his casting, he treats all of us, Academy people and seasoned actors, as an ensemble."
Koehn's also impressed with the Academy's seamless transition from studying to acting.
"Moving from the classroom to the rehearsal hall means that we get to work with Soulpepper actors we've admired for so long," she adds. "Now we have a chance to create alongside of them and see what their work processes are. While the work we're doing now is so different from the scene studies, we're still learning from these talented people."
"It's a thrill to walk into a room and know that everyone there wants you to be part of the company and the community," smiles Santalucia. "I'm a young actor, but I feel integral to the heartbeat of the place."