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j. kelly nestruck

When Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino programmed Tartuffe more than a year ago, neither he nor the production's director, Chris Abraham, knew it would open in a world in which Donald Trump was President of the United States.

But now, French playwright Molière's classic comedy about a con man who through false piety persuades a gullible follower named Orgon to hand over his money, his property and his daughter finds itself on stage at a time when the relevance of the show's themes are crystal clear.

Says Abraham, who also runs Crow's Theatre in Toronto: "I don't think either of us realized how topical the play would be."

"Tartuffe" as an idea permeates French society beyond its original context – and it's shorthand for any hypocrite, not just a religious one. "Trump is a Tartuffe," notes Abraham, matter-of-factly. "It's obvious that there's profound hypocrisy in his presidency and in him as a person."

But while Tartuffe' s depiction of a middle-aged man whose belief that society is broken makes him fall for a snake-oil salesman – to the shock and horror of his family and friends – may seem very timely at the moment, the comedy is also undoubtedly one that is timeless in its themes.

"The play is always relevant, because we always have people that are passing themselves off as pious, righteous, good, devout people when they are in fact anything but," says Tom Rooney, the Stratford Festival favourite who is playing the title character.

What should theatres emphasize when mounting a classic play – timeliness or timelessness? In the wake of protests and interruptions (some orchestrated by contributors to the Canadian right-wing site The Rebel Media) of a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in New York that dressed up the assassinated Roman ruler as Trump, the age-old question has become a subject of hot debate once again in artistic circles.

As it happens, I've had an opportunity to see how different artistic strategies have played out with Tartuffe.

In Canada, the play has experienced a real surge in popularity of late – and the Stratford Festival's production will be the fifth major professional version I've seen in five years, a time period in which power has shifted from a Conservative federal government to a Liberal one on this side of the border, and from Barack Obama to Trump in the United States.

Two of the recent Tartuffes connected the play to Canada in overt ways like that Caesar in New York.

Andy Jones adapted the comedy for the National Arts Centre's production in 2013 – keeping the characters' French names, but moving the action to pre-Confederation Newfoundland during the period where responsible government was suspended. King George VI, who in real life visited the colony in 1939, was substituted for Louis XIV in the famously sycophantic (or is it subtly subversive?) deus ex machina that concludes Molière's play. (This production directed by Jillian Keiley will be revived again this fall for a tour of Newfoundland and Labrador.)

Likewise, in 2016, at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal, director Denis Marleau moved Tartuffe to Quebec in 1969. But while the set and costumes of that production situated the action right smack in the middle of the Quiet Revolution, Marleau kept Molière's text unchanged – so, for instance, an RCMP officer showed up at the end to deliver a message from the king.

While I enjoyed both those productions, perhaps surprisingly, the Tartuffes that I saw that were less explicit in connecting the show to our world resonated more strongly with me.

Larger themes of illusion and reality came to the foreground in both Hungarian director Laszlo Marton's metatheatrical production at Soulpepper in Toronto in 2014 and German director Michael Thalheimer's wild production that visited Montreal's Festival TransAmériques from Berlin and took place on a set that tumbled in circles, tossing the actors like clothes in a dryer.

Both production seemed to skewer the hypocrisy of the wider society that Orgon exists in and, by extension, our own. They made me not just laugh at one individual character's gullibility, but start to wonder what I might be willfully blind to in my own life.

"The success of certain pandering politicians makes me wonder whether it is, sadly, only on stage that the Orgons are outnumbered," I wrote in reviewing the Soulpepper production – although now, three years later, I'm at loss to remember which particular politicians I was thinking of when I wrote that.

It seems whoever is in charge, we're always living in the age of Tartuffe.

It's impossible to imagine a production of Tartuffe ever again creating the stir that the original one in the French court did in 1664, of course.

Louis XIV quickly banned Molière's play under pressure from the Catholic Church – and even after the playwright wrote a revised version two years later, the archbishop of Paris threatened to excommunicate anyone who read it in public or private. One priest went even further – insisting that the playwright and actor known as Jean-Baptiste Poquelin to his friends should be burned at the stake for having written it.

It was only after power shifted in Paris that the play could be mounted in 1669 – and its notoriety has probably only helped it since.

At Stratford, Abraham wants to find a way to honour the "two poles" of Molière in his production of Tartuffe – the timely social critic who upset the powers that be with his play, and the timeless observer of human foibles.

So will Trump exist in his production? Abraham says yes – but he doesn't want to spoil how and says it's not in the straightforward manner you might expect.

"Molière's play is a master at flattering his audience and critiquing his society in very sly ways," he says. "And I didn't want to disrupt or compromise the play's capacity to seduce its audience before it criticizes them."

'The Komagata Maru Incident' tells the story of a ship full of Indian passengers turned away from Vancouver in 1914. The play opens at the Stratford Festival on Saturday.

The Canadian Press