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Memphis Flyer Mixed Emotions

Kate Davis -- Director, Actor, Teacher -- Will Leave Us Laughing With Tartuffe

By Hadley Hury

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  It's a near-perfect play -- comes pretty darn close."

That's what director Kate Davis has to say about her current project, a production of Moliere's comic classic Tartuffe, which opens October 3rd at Playhouse on the Square.

Something's kept audiences coming for 338 years. Tartuffe has never lost its style, its laughs, or its voice. It has spoken universally, in an always increasing number of languages, to every generation since it was first produced in 1669 (after having been banned for five years at the insistence of a Church infuriated by the play's skewering of religious hypocrisy). Demagoguery is never out of fashion; there are always false prophets and powermongers who trade on man's spiritual needs in order to feed their own megalomania, bank account, or political agenda. Some eras are more thickly inhabited with this sort of chicanery than others. If over the long life of Moliere's play, in many eras and in many cultures, the title character of Tartuffe has become synonymous with phony, controlling piety, God knows he has a currency in our age of televangelists, self-help saviors du jour, and politicians who wear their sanctimony on their sleeves.

Tartuffe speaks with hilarious relevance to these issues, but once Davis began working on the play, she found its thought-provoking comic vision even broader. "Certainly, religious hypocrisy is the central target. In 1664, the Church didn't just want the play to be burned, they wanted Moliere to be burned. But I really think that the play is about any sort of guru -- religious, political, whatever -- whom people lift up, latch onto, and follow blindly." (Interestingly, in one intermediate draft of the play, Moliere fairly well eviscerated the focus on religious charlatanism.)

"My favorite line in the play is, `Is not a mask different than a face?' We accept a mask so easily, don't we, especially if it's an appealing one?" Davis says. "And it makes life so much easier, doesn't it, or, at least, a bit more comfortable? Just to let go, and let somebody else tell you what to do, what to think, what to believe. It saves you a lot of conscientious decision-making. And so, we raise up these sorts of people. They become powerful because we give up so much of ourselves, our power, to them. We invest them."

The primary investor in the sleazy Tartuffe is a bourgeois named Orgon, who has swallowed the title character's spiritual how-to lines and invited him into his household. Everyone except Orgon has Tartuffe's number, and each of them -- his young wife Elmire, his grown son and daughter, Damis and Mariane, his brother-in-law Cleante, a man of reason, and even the saucy maid Dorine -- tries to expose his unctuous false piety to the credulous patriarch. With Orgon seeking to marry his daughter off to Tartuffe, and eventually going so far as banishing his son from the house and disinheriting him in favor of Tartuffe, Elmire, fed-up, swings into action.

To bring Moliere's high-brow, high-comic farce to life with the intelligent sense of style it demands, Davis has assembled a cast she describes as "fabulous" and "the most remarkable of my career to date." Ken Zimmerman is Tartuffe, Mark Chambers is Orgon, Jenny Odle is Elmire, and Kim Justis is Dorine. Also: Joanne Malin, Zach Ferrell, Lise Desjardins, Kevin Jones, John Maness, Bill Andrews, and Tracy Liz Miller.

Davis is using poet Richard Wilbur's rhymed-couplet translation of the play; the production design is period-accurate, with satin costumes and 17th-century-styled wigs.

The director is at home with the demands of classic structure and language. She has set some high local theatre standards in recent years with her direction of Twelfth Night and The Importance of Being Earnest, and as an actor as well, most memorably in the lead role of Turgenev's A Month in the Country.

"The most important thing for me in a `style play' like this is that we all be in the same play," Davis says. "This stylistic integrity requires a great deal of technical skill -- particularly verbal dexterity -- on the part of the actors. This cast has it. Moliere's characters have a lot of dimension. We've talked at length about this during the rehearsal period. In Restoration comedies, the characters are more heightened, more artificial, more type. In these later plays, Moliere is working off type -- but he's also looking into souls. Yes, it's farce; it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. But in this high-structure, high-style, bawdy high comedy, there is also thoughtfulness."

Davis laughs. "All that. There's a meal in this one -- even if the frosting alone is glorious to look at!"

THE LAUGHTER AT DAVIS' PLAYhouse production of Tartuffe may have a bittersweet echo.

At the end of February, the director/actor will be moving to Washington, D.C. She and her children will join her husband, Tom, who leaves in October to take up a new position as attorney-advisor in the administrative office of the U.S. Courts. Davis and her husband met while attending college in Washington and lived there prior to coming to Memphis.

"I have some very major mixed emotions. I feel like I'm going home and I feel like I'm leaving home."

Davis will not only be leaving a legacy of high standards for Memphis professional and community theatre, she will be leaving a similar record of excellence at St. Mary's Episcopal School, where she has directed the theatre program for nearly nine years. As she settles her family into their new home in the spring, Davis will survey teaching opportunities in and around the District. Before she goes, she'll be seeing through to completion a narrative theatre piece, to be produced at St. Mary's in February, entitled Safely Home. Based on never-before-shared personal journals, the work will dramatize the stories of the Sisters of St. Mary, an Episcopal order of nuns who bravely nursed the sick and dying during the Memphis yellow fever epidemic of 1878.

Davis says that building the piece from these diaries has been a profoundly moving experience. "It's been a marvel to work on. The words -- these women's innermost thoughts, their fears, their strength and sense of service -- are just ... well ...."

She doesn't finish the sentence, as if no choice of words she makes can be sufficient. Like all great directors, Davis has impeccable discretion and a healthy sense of awe for real human drama.

She will be missed.

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