Dallas — It’s the season of lingering sunsets and June bugs underfoot—just about time for some outdoor Shakespeare! TheaterJones talked with Raphael Parry, executive and artistic director of Shakespeare Dallas, about the company’s upcoming “Shakespeare in the Park” season, opening this week with a play not by Shakespeare: it’s 17th century French playwright Molière’s classic comedy Tartuffe, which Parry himself directs. This marks the second time Shakespeare Dallas has produced a not-by-the-Bard work for the series; the first was 2011’s well-reviewed Cyrano de Bergerac, also directed by Parry. The summer season pairs Tartuffe with Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Patrick Kelly, running at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre in Tenison Park; for the fall season, René Moreno will direct Antony and Cleopatra.
Tartuffe is, along with The School for Wives, one of Molière’s greatest comedies. It was a huge popular success in Paris in 1669—but only after Molière waged a long and exhausting fight to get it onstage. The Catholic authorities were outraged by his story of a bogus “holy man” planted in the bosom of a well-to-do Parisian family of the 17th century: beneath the pious surface Tartuffe is a lecher with a yen for both the wife and daughter of his host. The authorities prevented Tartuffe from being performed for several years, though Molière argued fiercely that he wasn’t making fun of religion, but of hypocrites in any walk of life.
Molière and Shakespeare [as Parry mentions below] share roots in the commedia tradition of clowning and absurdity. Where they differ, perhaps, is that Molière is a satirist of his own world—the Parisian upper classes in the reign of Louis XIV—while Shakespeare (living in an extraordinarily deadly political environment) sensibly set his great comedies in places “far, far away” from his own times, in thick forests and foreign lands.
In addition to Raphael Parry’s multi-faceted Shakespeare Dallas career, which began with acting roles back in the mid-1980s, he co-founded Undermain Theatre, where he directed and acted in more than 40 productions and helped develop a large body of contemporary plays. He’s acted and directed for companies across the area, won the Dallas Theatre League’s Standing Ovation Award in 2006, and for nearly 20 years has been the director and host of the Dallas Museum of Art’s ongoing Arts & Letters Live reading series “Texas Bound.” Parry is also chief artistic director of Project X, a producing group that develops new works for the stage.
TheaterJones: Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano three years ago was the first time Shakespeare Dallas produced a non-Shakespeare play—and here you are with another Frenchman, Molière.
Raphael Parry: Yes, I guess I have a penchant for the French playwrights. We’ve been looking at Molière for quite a while, though. It’s not a far leap for a company that produces Shakespeare to want to produce Molière. He’s another great classical playwright whose themes are as timeless as Shakespeare’s, and he’ll play very well in our outdoor venue.
How would you pitch Molière to an audience who might be less familiar with him—and how is he like or unlike Shakespeare? He’s very snarky and satirical, for one thing.
He is—and that’s not necessarily a strong suit for me, irony and snarkiness. So it’s kind of interesting for me as an artist to work with that. I don’t get sarcasm sometimes—I’m one of those “how did you mean that?” people—so it’s a challenge for me to deal with some of those textual elements and to know when to tell the actors, “Yeah, yeah—be more ironic, that’s it!”
The particular adaptation is a translation by [American poet] Richard Wilbur, and it’s all in iambic pentameter—so the verse structure is like Shakespeare. It’s different in that the verse is all rhyming couplets, as was the Cyrano we did. It’s the story of a hypocrite who lures gullible people to fall into his traps. It’s similar to Shakespeare in the overarching themes, I think. In this play, Molière is addressing how we all have masks that we wear, not revealing our true selves very often. That seems to be a theme of the play. I think Shakespeare deals with those issues as well. Tartuffe is different in that the play deals with one group only, the aristocracy or landed class, where Shakespeare always mixes it up with both high-born and “base” characters.
And Molière is looking at and satirizing his own contemporary world, which Shakespeare seldom did.
Yes, his was the world of Louis XIV, and of the great influence of the Church on society. In Tartuffe, he’s writing a play not about religion but about hypocrisy, and he’s lampooning the social elite. It was a very popular comedy at the time, and I think is still very relevant. [Note: There’s no historical consensus of exactly how Tartuffe finally made it to the public stage; it’s possible, according to some versions, that the king himself, a huge theater buff, “went to bat” for his good friend Molière.]
Why do you think Shakespeare and Molière are still funny and very playable today, when most other comedies from their times have faded?
There’s a wonderful sense of style in their plays. And though they’re very much of their periods, the laughs still come easily, because these comedic writers are taking aim at the same situations we’re wrestling with today. Shakespeare and Molière write about the human condition, our foibles and relationships, and we still identify with it all, [even with] a man trying to pave his way to heaven, who’d be willing to marry his daughter off to a hypocrite [to get there].
Every time I approach these works, I learn. Years ago, I played the role of Tartuffe at the Dallas Theater Center; but now, directing it, I’m not seeing the play from the inside [as an actor] but as a whole. I’m definitely learning a lot, most specifically about Molière’s voice: about the importance [to him] of the rational, of weighing things out—not equivocating, but trying to look at both sides of a topic, finding the middle path, as it were. That was something I never thought about when I was playing the role, so it’s a refreshing to take a new look at it.
The play opening after Tartuffe is Much Ado About Nothing. Do you put a lot of thought into figuring out which titles will “play well” together?
Absolutely. I think about what plays will balance each other, and have a group of collaborators working with me during the process: artistic associates René Moreno and Linda Blasé, and [development and program director] Jenni Pittman. In this instance, we chose two comedies both having a lot to do with language and wit, and of course with relationships. Much Ado is more focused on language and wit than Tartuffe, which is bolder and more straightforward—but it’s a good match. And also, because we’re introducing our audience to a playwright we haven’t produced before, we wanted to make sure the play we picked was accessible, and that we balanced it with a great Shakespeare comedy—so that if they didn’t care for Molière, surely they’d enjoy Much Ado About Nothing.
Have you seen audiences for Shakespeare in the Park change over the years?
My tenure here has been the past 12 years. And definitely, the audience is getting younger, it’s diversified quite a bit—racially, but also we’re seeing people from all the different socio-economic groups coming more and more. Shakespeare in the Park has become a very common meeting-ground for people; it’s very relaxed and not threatening, and just a great place for all kinds of people who love to be outdoors. We’ll see very elaborate picnics set up, and right next to them a bunch of folks with a box of pizza!
Maybe you’re seeing the results of Shakespeare Dallas’ long-running education programs in the schools?
Oh, absolutely. I’ll hear often from people in the audience who tell me their introduction to Shakespeare came from our work in the schools. And many of those kids are parents now, bringing their own children—so we hope it’s a tradition that gets passed down and keeps growing.
You have so many irons in the fire it makes my head swim. I hate to call contemporary and classical theater “two camps”—but it’s unusual to find someone who has such a big footprint in both areas. What does that artistic diversity do for you?
Well, it certainly keeps me invigorated all the time. I never get bored, which is a wonderful place to be as an artist. I have so much opportunity in both worlds, as you say—and I love new play development. Recently, playing a role in The Chairs at Kitchen Dog was a real pleasure; I don’t get many chances to work on an avant-garde play as an actor. There are unique challenges to each world.
Shakespeare and Molière were both businessmen in the theater. Would they have liked each other, do you think? Shakespeare died about six years before Molière was born—so they almost overlapped.
I do think Molière was influenced by Shakespeare: for sure, they both share in the commedia dell’arte tradition. It influenced a lot of the clown work in Shakespeare’s comedies, and Molière was part of a commedia troupe that traveled around France for years. They both have the same comedy roots, and draw on many of the same stock characters.
And they both believed that writing plays that sell tickets was a good thing!
Yes, that’s right—they were both stockholders who relied on their companies and plays to make a living. And though Molière became famous writing and performing in his own comedies, he loved tragedy [like Shakespeare] too. He was a popular comic actor who wanted to play tragedies, but nobody would take him seriously.
Here are the details:
- Tartuffe is in previews, and opens Friday, June 13 with another performance on June 14. Beginning June 25, it runs Wednesdays-Fridays at 8:15 p.m. through July 18
- Much Ado About Nothing Previews June 18-19, opens June 20, with more performances on June 21-22. Beginning June 24, it runs Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8:15 p.m. through July 19