Moliere's Classic Tartuffe, Set In River Oaks

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The Classical Theater Company is currently presenting Tartuffe, a comedy written almost 400 years ago by Moliere. The title character, Tartuffe, is a con man hiding behind a mask as a religious zealot who is out talk a man out of his money and daughter, while the man's family scrambles to prevent it.

Hair Balls spoke with John Johnston, executive director for the group, who discussed the timeliness of the play's message and the group's efforts to modernize the show setting.

Hair Balls: Your current production, the comedy Tartuffe, was considered very controversial in its time.

John Johnston: Even though it was a comedy, it was a scathing satire. It was a criticism of the Catholic Church at the time. The play focuses on a religious hypocrite, Tartuffe, who professes one thing and performs another. It was so controversial, to the point where the Archbishop of Paris threatened excommunication for anyone who was in the play or saw the play. Eventually King Louis XIV came in and saved the day. And while it was very controversial in its time, it's since become a sort of a light, funny, fluffy farce.

HB: You've modernized the play to a certain extent, placing in April 2010, in a plush house in River Oaks. And you've added qualities to Tartuffe that resemble a recognizable real-life person.


JJ: As a company, we're not interested in just presenting a play. We want to give it a never-before seen quality; we like to layer in a message. With Tartuffe, in particular, we're taking aim at the big time churches, the evangelicals, but even more specifically at Benny Hinn. We did lots of research, and he was the one that really struck me. I have difficulty reconciling the lifestyle that some of these people live and yet at the same time preach that the poor shall inherit the earth. [The bible says] that you can't serve God and money. Benny Hinn, when he goes on his tours, he stays in a $10,000-a-night hotel. He has a $20 million beachfront house in California. The sheer extravagance of it all is astounding. You have to wonder if all that is necessary, and how much of the church funds are going to support his lifestyle?

So while it's almost 400 years after the play was written, all these aspects are still relevant -- prevalent, even -- in today's society, which is a large part of why audiences still like the play.

HB: So is Tartuffe just a disguised attack on Hinn and other evangelists like him?

JJ: At its core, the theater is meant to entertain. If your audience isn't entertained, then whatever message you want to get across will be lost and unimportant. Entertainment doesn't necessarily mean ha-ha's, entertainment means you care about what's onstage. I think Tartuffe is a conduit for that. At its [core], it's a funny play. Hopefully people will come to the play and laugh and have a really good time, but maybe on their drive home they'll think about what they've seen and say, "Ha, you know the play made me think about ..."

Our hope is to challenge our audiences. That's something that you hear talked about a lot in theater, but that actually doesn't happen very often. We hope to do that.

HB: While people will certainly recognize the Benny Hinn-like character, I wonder if they'll recognize themselves, either as the man being conned or the people around him who are trying to prevent it. I think most people would like to think of themselves as the people around him, trying to open his eyes.

JJ: Of course. Tartuffe is modeled very closely after Benny Hinn and I'm hoping that people will say, "I know that guy," or "I know someone like him." They might recognize that brand of evangelical, whether they recognize themselves, that will take a bigger leap.

HB: Is that part of the reason you set it 2010?

JJ: We're trying to make it as immediate as we possibly can, in an effort to allow people to recognize these characters as contemporary and draw a direct correlation between them and the show.

See Tartuffe 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; and 7:30 p.m. April 12. Through April 18. Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, 2201 Preston. For information, call 713-963-9665 or visit www.classicaltheatre.org. $7 to $15.

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