An Interview with Guillaume Tourniaire on Directing Rockville Little Theatre’s ‘The Miser’ by Ken Kemp

 Director Guillaume Tourniaire.

Director Guillaume Tourniaire.

Rockville Little Theatre closes their 2013-14 season with an ambitious, unique and off-beat production of Molière’s The Miser. Director Guillaume Tourniaire’s vision for the show includes setting it in the United States in the 1980s, and includes a live cover band on stage. I caught up with Tourniaire to get the inside story on the show everyone will be talking about

Ken: What’s The Miser about?

Guillaume:  Harpagon is a lonely, miserly old widower, who rules his shrinking household like a despot. His growing children both yearn to leave for loves of their own, though their inheritance and fortune is tied up in their father. The general atmosphere of distrust obliges the lovers to conduct their affairs clandestinely. Of course, as this near-tragedy is set against the backdrop of Commedia dell’Arte-inspired slapstick, and the line between tragic and comic is blurred.What made you choose this adaptation, and is that something the audience will care about?

I chose Albert Bermel’s excellent translation, which was recommended to me by several of the acting faculty I’ve worked with, as a very “actor-friendly” script. I teach 17th Century French Theatre, and as I’ve worked increasingly on Molière’s plays for the course, I tend to come back to Richard Wilbur for translations of the verse plays of Molière, Racine, and Corneille, and Albert Bermel for prose plays.

Bermel also has a real knack for capturing the essence of the humor of Molière. This is very difficult to translate completely into English, but he makes it funny in English very nearly the way it is funny in the original French, giving it an almost “Fawlty Towers” feel.

You’re doing some unique things with the treatment of the show – tell us about the setting and other unique things you’re doing in this production. How will that enhance the experience for the audience?

Director  Guillaume Tourniaire in rehearsal.

Director Guillaume Tourniaire in rehearsal.

We’ve done a few things with this production, in an attempt to capture the spirit of Molière’s Commedia influences. Molière transposes the action from the typical Venice to Paris, and we have further transposed it to the New World. As the play dates from 1668, we wanted a historical manse for a backdrop, which looks like it could have been here for the past 300 years.

While this is a period piece, it’s rather difficult for our audiences to imagine the late 17th century from our perspective. We wanted a “mirror to life” that gave us enough distance to see our own distorted reflection, but enough proximity to be familiar. Thus, we settled on the “Me Decade” of the 1980s. The fashions of the 80s also afford us the opportunity to explore the ridiculous, much as the costumes of Molière’s own troupe would have, built on the instantly-recognizable “uniforms” of Commedia dell’Arte stock characters.

To help set the scene, we will also have a live band on stage, up in a “musicians gallery.” They will play 80s covers before the show, during intermission, and in-between the scenes. This is a nod to Molière’s comedie-ballets, his collaborations of dramatic and musical pieces with the composer Lully. Updating the spectacle to our era offers our audiences a sort of parallel experience.

What attracted you to this piece, as a director?

The Miser is considered one of Molière’s best works, a classic. It was written and performed after he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis three years before, and given a grim prognosis – indeed, he was to die four years later, halfway through a performance of The Imaginary Invalid. Molière’s illness prompted a period of great productivity, writing 16 new plays in seven years, as if he were racing the Reaper. He even wrote his wracking cough into the role.

The Miser is also one of Molère’s most compact works. It’s almost Racinian in its sparseness. It brings together so many of the elements that inspired him throughout his career, and brought him success. The characters are spun from the Commedia dell’Arte archetypes, as well as those of French farce. The play that sets them in motion, however, while borrowed from Plautus, is built on that strange blend of comedy and tragedy which Molière parlayed into his trademark.

What challenges does the The Miser present for you and your cast?

Although the play is trim, there is nevertheless a very great deal of dialogue, sometimes delivered in dizzying repartees, sometimes in breathlessly long monologues. Though translated, some of the language is also somewhat archaic, and to chew through that, as well as giving scenes the stakes of contemporary mores, as well as the “shtick” of Commedia has been an intricate cocktail.

For myself, the challenge was finding a cast capable of animating such a demanding show, as well as assembling a creative team willing and able to invest in the conveyances for transporting this production, in such a way that the audience would buy into the conceits, and simply enjoy the ride. In both regards, I have been very lucky indeed.

What else do we need to know about the show?

While The Misanthrope cemented Molière’s laurels as a dramatic poet for posterity, it did not do well in its day. By contrast, The Miser, though darkly funny, was written to be popularly successful – and has continued to be, throughout the past three centuries, of the many performances of the offspring of his troupe, the Comedie Française, and throughout the world. So while it does its Neoclassical duty to teach valuable lessons about Greed, Love, Family, and Trust, it is foremost a play to be enjoyed. All our pains in preparing this production have been taken with that aim, and we hope and pray that everyone will find it successful in that regard.

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The Miser is produced by Nancy Blum and Chris Penick, directed by Guillaume Tourniaire and features Steven Rosenthal, Todd Mazzie, Lena Winter, Justus Hammond, Amanda Wesley, Bill Byrnes, Michael Abendshein, Karen Fleming, Rick Christenhusz, Christopher Reed, and Eric Henry.

The Miser plays from May 2-11, 201 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre -603 Edmonston Drive, in Rockville, MD. For tickets, call (240) 314-8690,  buy  them at the box office, which is open Tuesday through Saturday from 2-7 PM, or purchase them online.

Evening performances are at 8:00 PM, Sunday matinees are at 2:00 PM. Tickets are $18.00 for adults and $15.00 for seniors and student.

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