You may have seen Molière’s Tartuffe before (what theater lover hasn’t?), but you’ve never seen a Tartuffe quite like the stunningly conceived, directed, designed, and performed production now dazzling audiences at South Coast Repertory—or at least those willing to see the Molière classic through a strikingly different lens.
To begin with, this is David Ball’s 1998 adaptation and not the more commonly performed Richard Wilber translation from the 1960s. Rhyming couplets may open Ball’s Tartuffe, but they are a good deal more whimsical than Wilber’s (compare Ball’s “He’s a fake, a freeloader, he came with a bad odor” with Wilber’s “Surely it is a shame and a disgrace to see this man usurp the master’s place”), and before long rhymes make way for more contemporary-sounding prose (“He coddles him, kisses Tartuffe, pampers him more tenderly than an old man fawning on a young mistress”).
Purists may gripe (though Ball does give them back their rhymes from time to time), but open-minded theatergoers will relish this Tartuffe’s more modern edge, particularly given themes that resonate perhaps even more strongly in the 21st Century than they did in the 17th.
The plot remains the same one audiences have known since Tartuffe debuted exactly 350 years ago.
Self-appointed “man of God” Tartuffe (Steven Epp) has infiltrated himself into the good graces of Orgon (Luverne Seifert) and his mother Madame Pernelle (Michael Manuel, in battleaxe drag), a former vagrant turned pious fraud with more than mischief in mind, for you see, Tartuffe plans not only to seduce Orgon’s wife and daughter but to take ownership of his host’s entire fortune and property in the process.
Orgon’s family members are, not surprisingly, concerned about Tartuffe’s influence over their patriarch and grand-mère. These include Orgon’s young wife Elmire (Cate Scott Campbell), his brother-in-law Cléante (Gregory Linington), his daughter Marianne (Lenne Klingaman), his son Damis (Brian Hostenske), and Marianne’s intended Valère (Christopher Carley).
Observing and commenting on all of the above is mouthy housemaid Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen), while Tartuffe’s ever-lurking servants Laurent (Nathan Keepers) and Pascal (Nick Slimmer) attend to their master’s every wish.
If other productions have emphasized the comedic throughout (or lost focus in a mishmash of styles), South Coast Rep’s Tartuffe (previously staged at Minneapolis’s now-defunct Theatre De La Jeune Lune) darkens gradually—and quite deliberately—from its outrageously funny scenes early on to darker, occasionally homoerotic tones as Molière’s central themes of religious charlatanism and its accompanying hypocrisy—and our vulnerability to each—take over.
This coproduction with Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Shakespeare Theatre Company is an amalgam of Minnesota and Southern California talents.
Theatre De La Jeune Lune’s Dominique Serrand directs (and brilliantly I might add), with the Twin Cities’ Carley, Epp, assistant director Keepers, Seifert, and Warmanen along for the ride, all of them superb, as is casting director Joanne DeNaut’s once again pitch-perfect ensemble of L.A.-based actors.
Scenic designer extraordinaire Tom Buderwitz joins Serrand in creating Tartuffe’s elegant, expansive set (from Serrand’s original design), lit to gorgeous perfection by Minnesota’s Marcus Dilliard, who makes his SCR debut as does Theatre De La Jeune Lune’s Sonya Berlovitz with her scintillatingly retro costumes. (Carley’s flowered-print pantsuit is the kind that wins awards.) Local sound designer Corinne Carrillo completes the production design team with pitch-perfect musical underscoring.
Early scenes couldn’t be more hilarious. A delicious Warmanen exchanges verbal parries with the marvelous Seifert. (Orgon: No talking! You understand me? Yes? Dorine: Yes, but I’ll be thinking. When I am silent, I am not a happy person.) Carley’s tour-de-force Valère then plays a young-love scene opposite the enchanting Klingaman’s Mariane that is so out-and-out brilliant, the duo could easily become national sensations were Valère and Mariane to become Saturday Night Live regulars. (Lorne Michaels, are you listening?)
Then arrives Epp’s hard-bodied, dangerous Tartuffe, his soul as dark as the actor’s Billy Idol-bleached hair is light, and things take a gradually more somber turn, never more so than in Act Two’s would-be seduction scene, one which has Elmire contriving to get Tartuffe to put the moves on her as her husband waits under the table on which the planned seduction is to take place. As wildly funny as this same scene played at Theatricum Botanicum two summers back, director Serrand turns comedic seduction into attempted rape…and the results are both stunning and disturbing as all get-out.
Campbell’s exquisite Elmire, Manuel’s gravely-voiced Madame Pernelle (and his deus ex machine Officer), Hostenske’s suitably outraged Damis, Linington’s solid Cleante, and Slimmers jail-bait seductive Pascal are all terrific too, with ensemble members Becca Lustgarten, James MacEwan, and Callie Prendiville completing the cast to perfection.
Joshua Marchesi is production manager. Kathryn Davies is stage manager. Kimberly Colburn is dramaturg.
It’s been quite a year for South Coast Repertory. Death Of A Salesman, Rest, Five Mile Lake, 4000 Miles, Trudy And Max In Love, Reunion, The Light In The Piazza, Fast Company, James And The Giant Peach… From classics to world premieres, from dramas to comedies to musicals (and everything in between), 2013-2014 has once again proven South Coast Rep the place to be for the finest in Southern California regional theater.
Tartfuffe completes an outstanding year on a high note indeed.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
May 20, 2014
Photos: Debora Robinson